The Process Intensification (PI), which is defined as “any chemical engineering development that leads to a substantially smaller, cleaner, safer, and more energy efficient technology”, is likely to be the next revolution of the chemical industry. The need for more efficient processes, including further flexible engineering designs and, at the same time, increasing the safety and environmental impact of these processes, is pushing the industry to novel research in this field. The chemistry and related sectors have already recognized the benefits of the PI and estimated a potential for energy saving of about 1.000 ktoe / year using these processes. It is also for this reason that the PI takes a very high place in the current European research agenda, see, for instance, the SPIRE programme in H2020.
Among several industrial processes, hydrogen production aroused great interest in the research and industrial scenarios, due to the possibility, in particular aiming to exploit hydrogen as an energy vector (also through distributed generation). On the other hand, up to now, really sustainable hydrogen production (i.e. with lower environmental impact and the use of new raw materials) represents one of the main obstacles toward a true hydrogen-based economy.
The technology of Membrane Reactor (MR) plays an important role in the PI and is based on a device combining a membrane-based separation and a catalytic chemical reaction in one unit. Every catalytic industrial process can potentially benefit from the introduction of catalytic membranes and membrane reactors instead of the conventional reactors.
Today membrane reactors are being proposed for a variety of reactions (especially in the H2 production processes, i.e. steam reforming, dry reforming or auto thermal reforming). In principle, all reactions affected by thermodynamic limitations can be enhanced by using membrane reactors. In fact, removing one of the products during the reaction, allows circumventing thermodynamic limitations. But there are still several barriers to be overcome for their successful deployment at industrial level.
The objective of industrialization of a catalytic MR can only be achieved through a sound, interdisciplinary research between the R&D institutions and industry, covering all the aspects of the innovation chain (from materials – catalysts and membranes – to modelling and energy analysis, to engineering and related safety and environmental issues). A sharing of the technological risk between the industry and research institutions is also a strong incentive to face the well-known conservative nature of the chemical sector and to help a faster exploitation of membrane reactors in this industry and beyond.
The final goal of PROMECA is to develop, test, and validate an innovative MR integrating new structured catalysts and selective membrane materials to improve the overall performance, durability, cost effectiveness, and sustainability over different industrially interesting processes, starting with distributed hydrogen production as the main focus of the project, but already assessing replicability, i.e. methane reforming, CO2 capture, heat and power cogeneration, bio-based fuel conversions.