SepPure's nanofilters massively reduce energy cost of industrial separation processes

SepPure's nanofilters massively reduce energy cost of industrial separation processes

As pressure grows on companies to reduce reliance on gas and oil, established processes even at industrial scales are being questioned, offering an opportunity for tech to step in. SepPure is looking to replace the complex gas-based distillation of oils with a membrane engineered at the nanometer scale, and its approach has attracted $12 million in a new funding round.

Oils of all kinds must be extracted and purified from their source, which might be a seed, fiber, or some other organic material. Of course, you can crush an olive and get a lot of the oil out of it, but nowhere near all of it; to do that, the pulp is immersed in a massive amount of solvent, like acetone or hexane, which pulls out the remaining oil. The resulting mixture is then heated, usually via natural gas or oil, and the solvent and oil separate.

This fuel-intensive process has persisted for decades, partly because the high temperatures required preclude the use of solar or wind as the heat source.

A potential alternative appeared in the water-purification space many years ago, which for a long time also used a distillation process to separate H2O from contaminants. Membranes can be engineered to allow through certain substances while others are blocked, letting, for instance, water molecules but not large organic ones. This approach has been taking over the water industry, because it’s cheaper, simpler, and uses less energy (look for “reverse osmosis” on the label).

SepPure founder and CEO Mohammad Farahani explained that the pressures of climate change and gas prices (not to mention cost savings) have caused others to look at membranes as a possibility. DiviGas, for example, created a membrane that separates hydrogen from carbon dioxide, and Membrion made one to remove heavy metals from water. But water isn’t a particularly harsh substance, unlike many chemical precursors to useful oils and other molecules.