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Gas mixtures can be effectively separated by synthetic membranes. For other methods see adsorption, absorption, cryogenic distillation.
Usually nonporous polymeric membranes are used. There vapours and gases are separated due to their different solubility and diffusivity in polymers. The permeability or permeation coefficient (P) of such nonporous membranes can generally be expressed as the solubility (S) of the gas in the membrane polymer multiplied by the diffusivity D of the gas in the polymer, i.e., P = D S; in such cases, permeation is said to occur by a "solution-diffusion" model. Polymers in glassy state, generally more effective for separation, predominantly differentiate in diffusivity. Small molecules of penetrants move among polymer chains according to the formation of local gaps by thermal motion of polymer segments. Free volume of the polymer, its distribution and local changes of distribution are of the utmost importance. Then diffusivity of a penetrant depends mainly on its molecular size.
Porous membranes can also be utilized for the gas separation. The pore diameter must be smaller than the mean free path of gas molecules. Under normal condition (100 kPa, 300 K) it is about 50 nm. Then the gas flux through the pore is proportional to molecules velocity i.e. inversely proportional to square root of the molecule mass. It is known as Knudsen diffusion. Gas flux through a porous membrane is much higher than through nonporous one 3 to 5 orders of magnitude. Separation efficiency is moderate hydrogen passes 4 times faster than oxygen. Porous polymeric or ceramic membranes for ultrafiltration serve the purpose. Note, in case the pores are larger than the limit then viscous flow occurs, hence no separation.
In special cases other materials can be utilized, for example Palladium membranes permit transport solely of hydrogen.
(Wikipedia, Gas Separations, 4/18/2012)
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Roger D. Corneliussen
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* Date of latest addition; date of first entry is 4/18/2012.