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Bioethanol enrichment using zeolite membranes: Molecular modeling, conceptual process design and techno-economic analysis

Mittal, Nitish, Bai, Peng, Siepmann, J. Ilja, Daoutidis, Prodromos, Tsapatsis, Michael
Journal of membrane science 2017 v.540 pp. 464-476
adsorption, artificial membranes, beers, bioethanol, cost effectiveness, crystals, diffusivity, distillation, economic sustainability, energy conservation, equations, ethanol, financial economics, fossil fuels, hydrophilicity, hydrophobicity, industry, lignocellulose, molecular models, process design, viability, zeolites
Lignocellulosic biomass-derived ethanol offers a potential alternative to fossil-derived fuels. However, the energy-intensive nature of its recovery process, i.e., a sequence of two distillation columns – beer and rectification columns - enriching from 5 to 37, and 37–93wt%, respectively, limits its environmental and economic benefits. In this paper, we assess the potential of using zeolite membranes for bioethanol recovery. Atomistic-level and molecular dynamic simulations are performed to determine adsorption and diffusion properties of the ethanol-water mixture in zeolite membranes. These properties are modeled using the real adsorption solution theory and the Maxwell-Stefan equations to describe permeation through the zeolite membranes. A comparison of steady state permeance and selectivity predicted by the model with the values from experiments suggests that the simulated membranes are more permeable and selective than the real membranes. This is attributed to the presence of structural non-idealities and hydrophilic defects in real membranes, while the adsorption and diffusion properties obtained using molecular simulations reflect the behavior in ideal crystals. Thus, a reduced diffusivity model with an empirical relation for enhanced water adsorption is used to capture similar performance as that obtained by real membranes. This model is further used in developing conceptual process designs to assess the viability of zeolite membranes for bioethanol enrichment in industry. Both hydrophobic and hydrophilic zeolite membranes are considered. Hydrophobic zeolite membranes show potential for energy savings but lack in separation performance. On the other hand, hydrophilic zeolite membranes can achieve the separation target but result in no energy savings. Thus, a configuration that uses a combination of hydrophobic and hydrophilic membranes is proposed. It can achieve the separation target and results in 15% energy savings over distillation. Techno-economic analysis suggests that ~ 10-fold improvements in permeation or equivalent cost reductions are required for economic viability of this scheme.