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Looking Towards Next Generation Membranes
“Imagine the future and fill in the gaps,” Brian Halligan once said. An important quote that resonates with our brand identity and founding principles. Business and industry are constantly evolving; there’s no certainty, only forecasts and estimates. This ever changing landscape fuels our commitment to respond to global needs and drive innovative solutions. Whitefox can propel membrane technology forward through looking to explore process design and continue to work as a solution provider with applications that go beyond ethanol production. Our Product Engineering Manager, Jessica Lopez, discusses the potential next generation of membranes, and how Whitefox hopes to play a part in their future.
Looking up and forward
I recently attended the 2022 European Membrane Society Conference in the beautiful Italian town, Sorrento, high above the Mediterranean with spectacular views across the Gulf to Naples and Mt. Vesuvius. There, I attended Giorgio Boscheri’s lecture discussing membrane versatility for space exploration in developments for further explorations across the moon and Mars as per the elaborations of Thales Alenia Space Italia. The catalyst for these resource reuse membrane innovations is the weight limit of spacecraft; the longer supplies can remain in circulation, and the longer these exploration missions can last. I think this demonstrates the versatility of membranes as a separation medium in the past, present and future. Fundamental to membrane development in space, is its focus on tailoring processes to the scarce availability of resources and reutilising as much as possible.
The Balance of Operational Benefits
To ensure that membrane innovations make a real difference in industrial applications, we need tangible solutions which demonstrate real benefits over time. Within the academic space, there’s a lot of talk about enhanced, high-performing materials suitable for a variety of separations. However, translating this theory into commercial membrane installation is equally important, and perhaps more difficult than inventing new materials. Reliably scaling up long-term membrane operations is therefore the challenge at hand and only very few membrane companies have this capability and experience.
The fine balance of resource reuse and physical limitations, as described by Giorgio Boscheri, aligns with Whitefox’s approach to membrane innovation – conventionally different to others within our sector. Many companies focus either on equipment development or process engineering design. Whitefox recognizes the importance of both activities and how process design, referred to as software, and membrane cartridges, we call it hardware, need to work in equilibrium to optimise operational benefits when implementing viable membrane solutions.
Process design is absolutely essential to maximise benefits across industrial processes. As an example, Whitefox ICE can be installed alongside existing separation technologies, such as distillation and molecular sieves, to optimise the overall process due to heat recovery based on optimum process design. In the bioethanol industry, we focus on reducing energy consumption in distillation by coupling it with membrane solutions. Through combining these technologies, we are able to operate in optimal spots for each of them.
The Pathway to Net Zero
Efficiency is at the top of our minds, not only for our customers’ benefit, but also in order to increase efficiency in energy intensive chemical separation processes which account for 10-15% of the world’s total energy consumption. If we’re going to achieve Net Zero emissions within targeted timelines, we need to tackle this issue, and the next generation of membranes have the capability to play a key role. Wherever there is a separation step, there’s an opportunity for membrane innovation. So, how can governments, companies and entities reach their Net Zero goals? We believe a big part will be a combination of energy conservation and reduction through membrane assisted processes in a combination of various energy sources such as renewables, biofuels and hydrogen, alongside carbon capture.
Accelerating Net Zero efforts within the biofuels industry, including Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), can make an immediate impact given that it utilises existing supply chain infrastructure and thereby circumvents large-scale capital investments. Furthermore, biofuels and its rural nature supports agriculture, farmers, and local communities along the way. Renewable energy still requires much global investment and evolution to continue to cultivate change, and we look forward to being part of the pathway to Net Zero
Whitefox is accelerating its efforts within Net Zero. For example, one of our customers, Western Plains, has their sights set on becoming a Net Zero ethanol plant, installing Whitefox ICE XL. By following the concept of conservation and reduction, ICE XL lowers natural gas consumption by half in a first stage (conservation) moving towards a second stage reduction of an additional 40% which is possible through technology integration with Mechanical or Thermal Vapour Recompression.
Hydrogen and Carbon Capture
In the future, additional clean energies can be incorporated to further enhance process efficiencies and reduce GHG emissions. For example, the development and utilisation of hydrogen-based energy is considered a promising solution in the move away from fossil fuels. Currently, hydrogen membrane innovation is a very complex technology, and key within optimising hydrogen’s sustainability attributes is improving the production efficiency of thermochemical hydrogen reactions. By using membranes to separate hydrogen generated during thermochemical reactions, we are working to significantly improve hydrogen production efficiency and increase chemical purity.
Furthermore, whilst we continue to build momentum in the shift away from fossil fuels, carbon capture technology appears to be a positive short term solution in reducing the adverse emission effects of fossil fuel energy generation. One efficient form of carbon capture technology would be oxyfuel combustion, with the ability to capture 100% of carbon emissions. It is however extremely expensive and energy intensive, which is an example of how we need process innovation perfection before diving into industry wide implementation.
The Future of Water Conservation
Saving water is already a huge area of impact for membranes, but the need for continued diversification and innovation is accelerating. On our planet, the total quantity of water available for human consumption is very limited, and due to years of contamination, global quality is deteriorating. Most water on the planet is only used once for human benefit, much of that use has very little impact on the water quality itself. In the US, 39% of water use goes to energy production, 40% to farming and 11% to manufacturing, accumulating to around 300 billion gallons of fresh water every day. As the natural resources that are available to us evolve, change, and dwindle, we need to explore other sources. It is expected that without immense change in this space, a large portion of the world’s population will suffer from water shortages by 2050.
There is extreme variability in the scale and specification of membrane technology within wastewater space, but with increasing water supply shortages in combination with stricter regulations, recovery and reuse incentives are on the rise.
waste less, produce more
At Whitefox, we strive to anticipate the next best thing through a sustainability lens, exploring how we can waste less and produce more. By combining our rich experience in combining process engineering with membrane development we look forward to the boundless possibilities of membrane innovation for the next generation, and discovering our further part to play in building an increasingly conscious, low-carbon future.
Providing solutions that contribute to our customers’ Net Zero strategies are at the core of Whitefox’s strategy. For further information please visit the Net Zero section on our new website.
About Whitefox Technologies Limited
Whitefox Technologies, with 22 years of industrial experience, is a leading solutions provider for fuel ethanol and other alcohol production processes. Specializing in technology development and process integration based on proprietary membrane solutions, its efficient designs reduce energy and water consumption in fuel ethanol and other renewable fuel and chemical production processes. Whitefox provides solutions for alcohol producers in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and South America.