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Shape-Sorting Compound Could Reduce Fuel Prices, University of California Says

Expensive Energy and Chemical Processes in the Oil Refinery Add to Fuel Prices
Expensive Energy and Chemical Processes in the Oil Refinery Add to Fuel Prices

Supply and demand have some effect on fuel prices, but there are a lot of intermediate steps that go into the price you pay at the pump.

Of course, it starts with how much it cost to initially extract petroleum from reserves underground. Transportation overseas and rail and by truck add to costs, and then there is the refining process. Crude oil, when refined, allows the refinery to extract a number of different products, from heavy asphalt to light gases. The process is energy intensive and expensive, which adds to the price you pay at the pump.

A new material developed at University of California at Berkeley, a metal-organic framework, could reduce fuel prices by eliminating some of the processing required at the refinery. Part of the refining process is to separate different hydrocarbon molecules by size, which refineries already do by filtering combined with distillation and sometimes chemical additives. The metal-organic framework could replace these energy-intensive steps by sorting molecules based on shape instead of size.

In lab tests, the metal-organic framework was formed with triangular passageways that would allow hydrocarbon molecules of various shapes and sizes to pass. Linear molecules tend to ride in the apexes at a slower rate, while the complex molecules tend to ride in the open space in the center at a faster rate. Hydrocarbon molecules emerge from the other side of the filter at regular intervals where they can be separated.

By eliminating chemical and energy-intensive steps in the refining process, “You could get high-performance gasoline at a cheaper price, potentially, and also more environmentally friendly gasoline,” says Jeffrey Long, professor of chemistry at University of California at Berkeley.

Unfortunately, this won’t do much for the adoption of fuel-efficient vehicles. While fuel prices do seem to drive consumers to high-mpg vehicles, it doesn’t improve their habits.

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