HOUSTON (Reuters) - Exxon Mobil and Georgia Tech researchers published findings of a breakthrough in the journal Science on Thursday, saying they had devised a way to slash carbon emissions from chemicals manufacturing by using reverse osmosis instead of heat to separate molecules.
Reverse osmosis, which has been widely used for decades in desalination plants that turn seawater into drinking water, has long been seen as having applications for the oil and chemicals industry.
Now researchers have finally come up with a specially treated polymer that can serve as the semipermeable membrane needed to do reverse osmosis for chemicals manufacturing at room temperature.
Current techniques use high temperatures and heat to break up molecules to create chemicals that are used in myriad products across the economy.
Exxon said it was too early to say when the new technology could be applied commercially, or how they might go about patenting and licensing the technology so that other manufacturers could use it.
But if applied globally, the chemical industry's annual carbon dioxide emissions could be slashed up to 45 million tons, which is about equal to the yearly carbon dioxide emissions of about of 5 million U.S. homes.
The fossil fuels industry is under pressure to curb emissions, especially in light of the Paris Agreement signed in December, in which 195 governments agreed that aims to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), raising the potential for regulatory crackdowns on carbon-based businesses.
“We need multiple solutions to reduce CO2 emissions,” said Vijay Swarup, Exxon's vice president of research and development.
Chemical plants account for about 8 percent of global energy demand and about 15 percent of the projected growth in demand to 2040.
Researchers said their next steps will be to develop a pilot project that, if successful, could be scaled up.
(Reporting by Terry Wade; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)