Industrially challenging separations via adsorption in metal-organic frameworks : a computational exploration
Lennox, Matthew James
In recent years, metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) have been identified as promising adsorbents in a number of industrially relevant, yet challenging, separations, including the removal of propane from propane/propylene mixtures and the separation of mixtures of xylene isomers. The highly tuneable nature of MOFs - wherein structures may be constructed from a variety of diverse building blocks – has resulted in the publication of a staggering number of frameworks incorporating a wide range of network topologies, pore shapes and pore diameters. As a result, there are a huge number of candidate adsorbents to consider for a given separation. Molecular simulation techniques allow the identification of those structural features and characteristics of a MOF which exert the greatest influence on the adsorption and separation of the compounds of interest, providing insights which can both guide the selection and accelerate the development of adsorbents for a specific application. The separation of propane/propylene mixtures via adsorption has typically focused on selective adsorption of the olefin, propylene, via specific olefin-adsorbent interactions. These propylene-selective MOFs result in processes which selectively remove the most abundant species in the process stream and are typically characterised by high heats of adsorption, resulting in large adsorption units and adsorbents which are difficult to regenerate. In this work, the capability of MOFs to selectively adsorb propane over propylene is explored, potentially allowing for the design of smaller and more energy-efficient adsorption units. By studying a range of different MOFs as well as carbon-based model pores, it was found that the low-pressure selectivity of the structure is determined by the strength of the electrostatic interaction between propylene and the framework, while the adsorptive preference at industrially-relevant pressures is dominated by the enhanced packing efficiency of propylene over propane. The confinement of C3 molecules, however, may be employed to negate this entropic advantage and guide the development of materials which selectively adsorb propane over propylene. It has recently been reported that the adsorptive preference of a MOF for one xylene isomer over another may be predicted based solely on the pore size distribution of the structure. In this work, the impact of pore size on selectivity was studied systematically in both one-dimensional model pore systems of varying geometries and analogous published MOF structures. The ability of the framework to discriminate between xylene molecules in these systems was found to be determined primarily by the different packing arrangements available to the different isomers – while small pores were found to favour the slimmest of the isomers, larger pores were found to favour the more compact ortho- isomer. Finally, the adsorption and diffusion of xylene isomers in a more complex MOF, UiO-66(Zr), was studied in depth. Simulations were able to correctly predict the previously-reported preference of the MOF for ortho-xylene (oX). The smaller volume of the oX molecule compared to the other isomers was found to be responsible both for an enhanced entropic contribution and higher guest-host interaction energies. The importance of framework flexibility in the diffusion of xylene isomers in UiO-66(Zr) was also explored, with distortion of the structure in response to interaction with adsorbed molecules found to be essential in allowing xylenes to diffuse through the pore space.