Crude oil refining in the US and around the world is accomplished using a process called fluid catalytic cracking, which breaks the long-chain crude hydrocarbons into more valuable products, including gasoline, diesel oil, and others.
The process uses zeolite ceramic catalysts with pore size of about 1 nm to break down the hydrocarbons. According to an article in MIT Technology Review, the materials’ small pore size means they have difficulty handling the largest hydrocarbon chains. The results include inefficient use of a precious, non-renewable resource and lower profits for the refinery.
Enter Javier García Martínez, who had developed nanotechnology zeolite materials with pores 10 nm in size while working as a post-doctoral researcher at MIT more than 10 years ago. According to the article, García-Martínez “mixed zeolites with an alkaline solution and added a temporary surfactant, which forms small structures that the zeolites reconstruct around. The surfactant then burns off, leaving zeolites with a high number of mesopores.”
Pores in the resulting material were 7–10 nm in size, which “would allow refineries to, for example, process more barrels or run heavier (and less expensive) crude oil feeds, leading to greater yields and profits,” the article explains.
Working with another MIT grad, Andrew Dougherty, and MIT professor emeritus of chemical engineering Larry Evans, García-Martínez founded Rive Technology in 2006 to commercialize the mesoporous zeolite technology. According to the MIT Tech Review article, Rive has partnered with W.R. Grace, a producer of conventional zeolite materials and other refining technology, to manufacture its first commercial product.
Rive’s website says mesoporous zeolites provide “a technology solution to diffusion-limited reactions” such as oil refining. The company says its materials use “Molecular Highway” technology, referring to the relative ease with which large hydrocarbon chains can pass through the mesoporous catalyst material. Rive says the technology is also useful for chemical processing, biofuel, and air and water filtration applications.
Two US oil refineries have successfully tested Molecular Highway materials. In tests with one, Alon USA’s heavy crude refinery in Big Spring, Tex., results showed a value increase (pdf) of more than $2.50 per barrel after using the technology on a residual feed unit at the facility at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers annual meeting last March.
The video (photo above is a screen capture; credit: Rive Technology/YouTube) provides an animated look at how the technology works for oil refining applications. But García-Martínez, now Rive’s chief technology officer and director of the Molecular Nanotechnology Lab at Spain’s University of Alicante, believes mesoporous zeolite technology can not only improve use of hydrocarbon resources but also potentially solve other thorny global problems.
“I am personally convinced that nanotechnology in general, and materials with controlled porosity in particular, hold the promise to solve some of our most pressing challenges, such as cleaner energy production, mitigating climate change, and better water and air quality,” he says in the MIT article.