Decarbonizing gas separations to eliminate one gigaton of carbon emissions per year.
To create the materials essential to modern life — chemicals and fuels — we must first isolate compounds from their naturally occurring mixtures. The process of separations, transforming complex mixtures into pure components, is ubiquitous in nearly every major industry. It is also incredibly inefficient, producing 16% of the world’s carbon emissions and requiring 15% of the world’s energy. The reason? Heat. The majority of separation processes rely on boiling off pure components by heating mixtures to precise temperatures.
These processes are at the heart of tens of thousands of chemical and fuel processing plants around the world. They also represent an existential bottleneck between clean energy solutions and a sustainable future. For example, we know that hydrogen represents a potentially unlimited zero-carbon fuel and energy source, but producing it efficiently and without contributing to the emissions problem that it is intended to abate, is impossible using current separation techniques.
Osmoses, a startup spun out of MIT and founded by Francesco Maria Benedetti, Holden Lai, Zachary Smith, and Katherine Mizrahi Rodriguez, has developed a membrane platform technology with unprecedented performance for a number of gas separation applications, which easily integrates into existing energy infrastructure. The materials platform solves the inherent tradeoff between permeability and selectivity in membrane technology, achieving the highest combination demonstrated to date of these two key parameters. This membrane has the potential to replace and / or retrofit thermal gas separations and prevent gigatons of carbon from entering the atmosphere.
Membrane separations are not a new idea. Indeed, membranes are widely used, from the pharmaceutical industry to the dairy sector, all the way to desalination plants to produce potable water, where membranes replaced most of distillation and evaporation in the last 15 years. The industry where membrane technology still represents just a single-digit fraction of the market is that of gas separations.
“Separating effectively by size the smallest but most valuable gas molecules is an unmet need,” notes CEO and Co-Founder Francesco Benedetti, “and we are excited about the unprecedented performance of these materials and their applicability across multiple industries in the chemical and energy sector.”
Traditional membranes are not resilient or tunable enough to withstand the demanding environments of industrial chemical and fuel production, and they fail to separate with enough efficiency and precision to be viable alternatives to thermal approaches.
“Our membrane material is also intrinsically stable,” adds CTO and Co-Founder Holden Lai. “The innovative materials are designed without reactive sites, making it more resistant than other available options in extreme thermal and chemical conditions.”
Osmoses membranes can be produced at a competitive cost and at scale. The membranes also fit into existing infrastructure that already uses membrane technologies for gas separations — the trillions of dollars worth of piping, valves, compressors, and other complex and imposing machinery that are impossible for chemical and fuel manufacturers to simply write off. Such compatibility is essential to the adoption of new membrane technology. It also proves, at scale, that the economics make sense to eventually retire century-old thermal processes and transform the way gas separations are performed.
Benedetti and his team will first apply their technology in the purification of CH4, H2, and O2 — a $10B and growing market.
Osmoses technology is based on materials designed through a collaboration between Stanford and MIT. The unique rigid and contorted polymer materials cannot pack efficiently, forming pores that are about the same size as gas molecules, or 100,000 smaller than the thickness of human hair. These pores are designed to amplify the sub-angstrom differences in size among gas molecules, generating unprecedented separation performance.
Such membranes can also enable cost-effective point-source carbon capture for industrial processes like aluminum, lead, steel, copper, glass, and load-following electricity production. The ultimate impact of which would be to fully decarbonize the hardest sectors of the economy to decarbonize — the production of high-quality heat and power for industrial applications through point-source capture. Doing this is not only critical for CO2 emissions, but also for maintaining domestic industry and job growth. Without such a solution or an aggressive border tax, those jobs would rapidly be exported to other countries with less stringent emissions targets.
This vision of a bright and broadly decarbonized future is reflected in the name Osmoses itself. As Benedetti tells it, the name is a play on osmosis — the migration of molecules through a selectively permeable membrane — and the biblical story of parting the red sea by Moses, an act that is equally grand and incredible as parting gas molecules so precisely. “We want to reinforce just how much of a sea-change our membrane technology is,” Benedetti says. “We are doing something that is unprecedented, and up until now, unbelievable.”