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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials October 2017 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Cassandra Harris

Antifouling Ceramic Membranes

Why is this topic significant?

Hydraulic fracturing has made possible access to low-cost oil and gas in some regions, but water use, among other issues, is controversial. Researchers have developed a ceramic membrane that could make recycling of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing more technologically and economically feasible.

Description

In September 2017, researchers at Rice University (Houston, Texas) and King Saud University (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) published research describing the development of a fouling-resistant alumina microfiltration membrane for water purification. Membrane fouling occurs when contaminants deposit on the surface of the membrane, blocking the flow of water though the membrane's pore network.

The researchers engineered the membrane with antifouling properties by functionalizing the membrane's surface with cysteic acid to give it superhydrophilic properties. The researchers claim that the membrane surface attracts water and repels hydrocarbon molecules, preventing them from sticking. The superhydrophilic surface also prevents hydrocarbon molecules with sizes several orders of magnitude smaller than the membrane's pores from passing through the membrane.

According to the researchers, the functionalized membrane removes 90% of contaminants from wastewater generated in the production of shale oil and gas using hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" in a single pass. The researchers also showed that the flow rate of water through the functionalized membrane was higher than that of a membrane without functionalization. Their research appeared in the scientific journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Implications

Ceramic membranes are robust, and researchers can engineer them to have various pore sizes, which makes them attractive for industrial water filtration. But over time, membrane fouling reduces the rate at which the membrane transports water, and therefore the membrane requires regular cleaning and eventual replacement.

Wastewater from fracking is notoriously difficult to purify because it comprises a high concentration of a variety of contaminants, including bacteria, particulates, organic matter, and hydrocarbons. Ceramic membranes rapidly foul with exposure to fracking wastewater, and hydrocarbon molecules easily pass through ceramic membranes with small pore sizes. The researchers' functionalized membrane is significant because it addresses two key issues hindering the wider use of ceramic membranes in the oil-and-gas industry.

Impacts/Disruptions

Functionalized ceramic membranes could make the recycling of fracking wastewater economically feasible. At present, the purification of fracking wastewater is uneconomical, and only about 10% to 15% of fracking wastewater is recycled. The rest either evaporates or is subject to injection into abandoned gas or oil wells. Fracking uses about 20 million liters of water per well. Therefore, storage and transportation of fracking wastewater is expensive and generates greenhouse gases. Recycling fracking water is desirable from an environmental and an economic standpoint.

Functionalized ceramic membranes could reduce the cost of purifying contaminated water from a variety of sources. Inadequate supply of clean water is a major challenge facing society. Although membrane technology is playing a pivotal role in water sustainability, membrane cost remains an issue. Increasing the life span of ceramic membranes is an important way of reducing the cost of the technology. But functionalized ceramic membranes are in their infancy, and the commercial potential of the technology will depend on its cost and the scalability of manufacture.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Petrochemicals, agriculture, manufacturing, chemicals, industrial processing, construction, ceramics, food, pharmaceuticals

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

EcoTitanium Goes Commercial

Why is this topic significant?

Titanium is an expensive but strategic metal in use extensively in the aerospace industry. A multi-million-dollar titanium recycling plant, under development in France, will supply players in the European aerospace industry with lower cost and more environmentally benign titanium alloys.

Description

In September 2017, UKAD (Saint Georges de Mons, France), the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (Angers, France), and Credit Agricole (Clermont-Ferrand, France) announced the launch of the qualification phase of EcoTitanium—the first facility in Europe to use titanium waste to produce aviation-grade titanium alloys. Production will begin in 2018, and, at full capacity, the plant will produce several thousand tons of titanium-alloy ingot per year.

The production plant will use new technologies—including plasma-arc melting, cold-hearth refining, and vacuum remelting—to convert titanium-alloy scraps supplied by aircraft manufacturers into titanium-alloy ingots. EcoTitanium will supply the ingots to aircraft manufacturers at a lower cost than that of ingots produced by means of primary titanium extracted from ore.

The project partners claim that the facility will prevent the release of 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and will produce four times less carbon dioxide per year than will a conventional ore-based titanium-ingot production plant.

Implications

Titanium alloys possess high-temperature tolerance and excellent strength-to-weight ratios, which make them well suited for use in aerospace components such as airframes, landing gears, and engine parts. The use of titanium in aircraft is steadily increasing, reflecting efforts by developers to increase the fuel efficiency and flying range of their aircraft. The aerospace industry now accounts for almost half of global titanium consumption.

However, the production of titanium aerospace components is incredibly wasteful—up to 95% of the titanium is wasted and contaminated with coolants, lubricants, or other substances from processes such as cutting and milling. Aircraft manufacturers demand high-purity titanium alloys because even small concentrations of impurities can significantly alter the mechanical properties of these materials. Until recently, it was not economical to recycle titanium for use in the manufacture of aerospace components. Therefore, aircraft manufacturers use costly primary titanium produced by means of the energy-intensive Kroll process.

Impacts/Disruptions

European aircraft manufacturers are highly dependent on imports of titanium ingots from Russia and, to a lesser extent, the United States. The EcoTitanium facility will provide manufacturers in Europe with a cheaper, cleaner, and potentially more reliable source of titanium and, in turn, support the growth of the European aerospace industry. Overall, titanium-ingot production will remain an energy-intensive industry, but EcoTitanium is a step in the right direction in the development of sustainable-metals processing.

Analysts expect the market for titanium to grow significantly in the next few years, reflecting increasingly stringent regulations on fuel economy and growing demand for air travel. EcoTitanium will likely gain greater strategic importance in the years to come. Lower-cost recycled titanium may also prove valuable to players within the chemicals, energy, and medical industries, which are also increasingly demanding titanium alloys.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Aerospace, medicine and health care, construction, automotive, energy, manufacturing, chemicals

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: