MIT School of Engineering | »Depollution of industrial filtration
In other cases, membranes exist to separate liquids, but they are made of brittle polymers, which can break down or stick in industrial use.
Via the separations, a startup that emerged from MIT in 2017, set out to meet these challenges with an economical and robust membrane. Made from graphene oxide (a âcousinâ of pencil lead), the membrane can reduce the amount of energy used in industrial separations by 90%, according to Shreya Dave PhD ’16, co-founder and CEO of the ‘company.
This is valuable because separation processes account for about 22 percent of all plant energy use in the United States, according to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. By making these processes much more efficient, Via Separations plans to both save energy and reduce the significant emissions produced by thermal processes. âOur goal is to eliminate 500 megatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050,â says Dave.
Via Separations began testing its technology this year at a US paper company and plans to deploy a full commercial system there in the spring of 2022. âOur vision is to help manufacturers slow carbon dioxide emissions next year. Dave says.
MITEI start-up grant
The story of Via Separations begins in 2012, when the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) awarded a Seed Fund teacher grant Jeffrey Grossman, who is now Professor Morton and Claire Goulder and Family in Environmental Systems and Head of the Materials Science and Engineering Department at MIT. Grossman was pursuing research on nanoporous membranes for water desalination. âWe thought we could reduce the cost of desalination and improve access to clean water,â says Dave, who worked on the project as a graduate student in Grossman’s lab.
There she teamed up with Brent Keller PhD ’16, another Grossman graduate student and a 2016-17 ExxonMobilMIT Energy Fellow, which was developing laboratory experiments to make and test new materials. âWe were the first to understand how to debug experiments or fix equipment,â says Keller, co-founder and CTO of Via Separations. “We were quick friends who spent a lot of time talking about science rather than burritos.”
Dave then wrote her doctoral dissertation on using graphene oxide for water desalination, but this turned out to be a poor application of the technology from a business perspective, she says. . âThe cost of desalination does not lie in the membrane materials,â she explains.
So after Dave and Keller graduated from MIT in 2016, they spent a lot of time chatting with customers to learn more about the needs and opportunities of their new separation technology. This research led them to target the paper industry, as the environmental benefits of improved paper handling are enormous, explains Dave. âThe paper industry is particularly exciting as the separation processes in this industry alone account for over 2% of energy consumption in the United States,â she says. âIt’s a very concentrated and very energy intensive industry.
Today, most paper is made by breaking down the chemical bonds in wood to create wood pulp, the main ingredient in paper. This process generates a by-product called black liquor, a toxic solution that was once simply dumped into waterways. To clean up this process, paper mills have turned to boiling black liquor water and collecting water and chemicals for reuse in the pulping process. (Today, the most valuable way to use liquor is as a biomass feedstock to generate energy.) Via Separations plans to accomplish this same separation work by filtering the black liquor through its membrane d graphene oxide.
âThe advantage of graphene oxide is that it is very robust,â explains Dave. “It has carbon double bonds which hold up in many environments, including at different pH levels and temperatures which are generally hostile to materials.”
Such properties should also make the company’s membranes attractive to other industries that use membrane separation, Keller says, because today’s polymer membranes have drawbacks. âFor most of the things we make – from plastics to paper and gasoline – these polymers will swell or react or degrade,â he says.
Graphene oxide is significantly more durable and Via Separations can customize the pores of the material to suit the application of each industry. âIt’s our secret sauce,â says Dave, âmodulating pore size while maintaining the sturdiness to operate in harsh environmentsâ.
âWe are building a catalog of products to serve different applications,â Keller said, noting that the next target market could be the food and beverage industry. âIn this industry, instead of separating the different corrosive chemicals in paper from the water, we try to separate sugars and particular food ingredients from other things.
Future target customers include pharmaceutical companies, petroleum refineries and semiconductor manufacturers, or even carbon capture companies.
Dave, Keller, and Grossman launched Via Separations in 2017 – with a lot of help from MIT. After the seed grant, in 2015, the founders received two years of funding and mentorship from the Deshpande Technological Innovation Center and a year of funding and support from the J-WAFS Solutions program to explore markets and develop their business plans.
The company’s first capital investment came from Engine, a venture capital firm founded by MIT to support “hardened” companies (technology companies with transformational potential but long and difficult paths to success). They also received advice and support from MIT Deshpande Technological Innovation Center, In-company mentoring service, and Technology Licensing Office. In addition, Grossman continues to serve the company as Chief Scientist.
âWe have had an incredible chance to start a business in the entrepreneurial ecosystem at MIT,â said Keller, noting that the support of The Engine alone âhas probably saved years of our progress.â
Already Via Separations has grown to employ 17 people, while significantly increasing its product line. âOur customers produce thousands of gallons per minute,â says Keller. “To process that much liquid, we need huge areas of membrane.”
Via Separations’ manufacturing process, which is now capable of manufacturing over 10,000 square feet of membrane in a single production run, is a key competitive advantage, explains Dave. The company coils 300 to 400 square feet of membrane in a module, and the modules can be combined as needed to increase filtration capacity.
The goal, says Dave, is to contribute to a more sustainable world by making an eco-friendly product that makes sense for business. âWhat we’re doing is making things more energy efficient,â she says. âWe allow a paper mill or a chemical plant to manufacture more products using less energy and at a lower cost. There is therefore a net benefit which is significant on an industrial scale.
Keller says he shares Dave’s goal of building a more sustainable future. âClimate change and energy are central challenges of our time,â he says. âWorking on something that has a chance to have a significant impact on something so important to everyone is truly rewarding. “
This article appears in the Spring 2021 problem of Energy future, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. He originally appeared in MIT News on August 3, 2021