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UOP subsidiary of Honeywell has developed membrane separation technology to remove the last 5% of water from distilled ethanol. Traditional technology is azeotropic distillation with benzene. Recent ethanol plants have used molecular sieve technology.

Membrane separation technology has been around for a while. The original was Prism separators developed by Monsanto to recover hydrogen from low grade streams--often burned as fuel. It works by allowing small molecules to pass through the membrane pores while holding back larger ones.

The UOP announcement suggests this technology has now been extended to larger molecules. Presumably the membrane is permeable to water molecules (tricky because they often form clumps bigger than theory) and retains ethanol.

Molecular sieves also separate by size, but once the pores are filled with water molecules, the bed must be regenerated by heating. Membrane separation encounters a pressure drop and consumes some energy, but nothing like that used to regenerate molecular sieves.

Hence, this is a good example of constantly improving technology that should help continuing reductions in processing costs.
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