A new technique developed by scientists in the United Kingdom and the United States could significantly reduce the amount of energy used in the refinement of crude oil. It utilizes a porous material that is said to work like a chemical sponge to separate a number of important gases from mixtures generated during the refinement process.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham, the Science and Technology Facilities Council's (STFC) ISIS Neutron Facility, the U.S.-based Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Diamond Light Source Ltd. have proved that a porous material, a metal-organic framework, can be used to separate hydrocarbon mixtures without the need for the high pressures or very low temperatures that current processes require.

The material, called NOTT-300, is made from inexpensive organic materials, aluminum nitrate salt and water. According to the University of Nottingham it is able to adsorb different gases found in mixtures of hydrocarbons at different rates, making it possible to separate them and extract the most useful ones.

NOTT-300 operates at ambient temperatures and normal pressures, which means that it requires less energy to function than existing methods.

Moreover, the gases that are adsorbed into NOTT-300 can be removed without a significant energy input and the material can be easily reused.

This new separation technique can potentially reduce the energy usage associated with oil, petroleum and chemical industries which require the separation of raw hydrocarbons from crude oil, said Dr Sihai Yang, a Senior Research Fellow at Nottingham, who led the project together with Professor Martin Schrˆder.

"The next step is to launch in-depth collaborations with materials engineers and R&D from industries," Dr. Yang added.

The findings of the research have been published in Nature Chemistry.