MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. (Jan. 23, 2018)—A team of chemical and biological engineers has developed highly selective membrane filters that could enable manufacturers to separate and purify chemicals in ways that are currently impossible, allowing them to potentially use less energy and cut carbon emissions, according to findings published in print today in the journal ACS Nano.

Tufts University scientists said the sophisticated membranes can separate organic compounds not only by size—as small as a molecule—but also by their electrostatic charge, meaning manufacturers could sort compounds by both size and type. The membranes use a simple, scalable process in which a specialty polymer is dissolved in a solvent and coated onto a porous support. The polymer self-assembles to create approximately 1 nanometer size channels that mimic biological systems, such as ion channels, which control the passage of compounds through cell membranes with great effectiveness.

Corresponding-author Ayse Asatekin, Ph.D., a chemical and biological engineering professor in the Tufts School of Engineering, said the team’s discovery responds to industry-wide calls for the development of more efficient solutions for separating chemicals, which accounts for 10 to 15 percent of global energy use, according to a report in Nature.

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