The new system, which is still in development, is 50 times more energy efficient and could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 45 million tons globally per year - the equivalent emissions of 5 million U.S. homes, Exxon said. The industry also could save $2bn annually.
The Exxon and Georgia Tech scientists worked together and published their findings in the prominent academic journal Science.
They've essentially developed a carbon-based membrane that can separate molecules as small as a nanometer - one-billionth the size of a meter (A sheet of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick). The membrane acts as a filter to separate a chemical building block, called para-xylene, used to make plastics and polyester. The current industry methods use high-energy heating processes to separate those molecules. The new system can work at room temperature.
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