What is a membrane reactor?

A membrane reactor is really just a plug-flow reactor that contains an additional cylinder of some porous material within it, kind of like the tube within the shell of a shell-and-tube heat exchanger. This porous inner cylinder is the membrane that gives the membrane reactor its name.



The membrane is a barrier that only allows certain components to pass through it. The selectivity of the membrane is controlled by its pore diameter, which can be on the order of Angstroms, for microporous layers, or on the order of microns for macroporous layers.


Why use a membrane reactor?

Membrane reactors combine reaction with separation to increase conversion. One of the products of a given reaction is removed from the reactor through the membrane, forcing the equilibrium of the reaction "to the right" (according to Le Chatelier's Principle), so that more of that product is produced.

Membrane reactors are commonly used in dehydrogenation reactions (e.g., dehydrogenation of ethane), where only one of the products (molecular hydrogen) is small enough to pass through the membrane. This raises the conversion for the reaction, making the process more economical.


What kinds of membrane reactors are available?

Membrane reactors are most commonly used when a reaction involves some form of catalyst, and there are two main types of these membrane reactors: the inert membrance reactor and the catalytic membrane reactor.

The inert membrane reactor allows catalyst pellets to flow with the reactants on the feed side (usually the inside of the membrane). It is known as an IMRCF, which stands for Inert Membrane Reactor with Catalyst on the Feed side. In this kind of membrane reactor, the membrane does not participate in the reaction directly; it simply acts as a barrier to the reactants and some products.

A catalytic membrane reactor (CMR) has a membrane that has either been coated with or is made of a material that contains catalyst, which means that the membrane itself participates in the reaction. Some of the reaction products (those that are small enough) pass through the membrane and exit the reactor on the permeate side.



Fogler, H. Scott. Elements of Chemical Reaction Engineering, 5th Ed. Prentice-Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2005.