Continuous Liquid-Liquid Extraction and in-Situ Membrane Separation of Miscible Liquid Mixtures

Langmuir. 2021 Nov 23;37(46):13595-13601. doi: 10.1021/acs.langmuir.1c01985. Epub 2021 Nov 9.


Separation operations are critical across a wide variety of manufacturing industries and account for about one-quarter of all in-plant energy consumption in the United States. Conventional liquid-liquid separation operations require either thermal or chemical treatment, both of which have a large environmental impact and carbon footprint. Consequently, there is a great need to develop sustainable, clean methodologies for separation of miscible liquid mixtures. The greatest opportunities to achieve this lie in replacing high-energy separation operations (e.g., distillation) with low-energy alternatives such as liquid-liquid extraction. One of the primary design challenges in liquid-liquid extraction is to maximize the interfacial area between two immiscible (e.g., polar and nonpolar) liquids for efficient mass transfer. However, this often involves energy-intensive methods including ultrasonication, pumping the feed and the extractant through packed columns with high tortuosity, or using a supercritical fluid as an extractant. Emulsifying the feed and the extractant, especially with a surfactant, offers a large interfacial area, but subsequent separation of emulsions can be energy-intensive and expensive. Thus, emulsions are typically avoided in conventional extraction operations. Herein, we discuss a novel, easily scalable, platform separation methodology termed CLEANS (continuous liquid-liquid extraction and in-situ membrane separation). CLEANS integrates emulsion-enhanced extraction with continuous, gravity-driven, membrane-based separation of emulsions into a single unit operation. Our results demonstrate that the addition of a surfactant and emulsification significantly enhance extraction (by >250% in certain cases), even for systems where the best extractants for miscible liquid mixtures are known. Utilizing the CLEANS methodology, we demonstrate continuous separation of a wide range of miscible liquid mixtures, including soluble organic molecules from oils, alcohols from esters, and even azeotropes.