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Compact Membrane Systems eyes growth

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Compact Membrane Systems CMS Newport Delaware John Carney Christine Parrish

Christine Parrish, business development lead at Compact Membrane Systems, shows a unit to Gov. John Carney during a visit to their Newport site in March. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

NEWPORT – Much like the petrochemical industry that it has long served, Compact Membrane Systems is evolving its products to help meet the planet’s decarbonization goals.

Founded 30 years ago by Stuart Nemser, who spun out research from DuPont to make CMS, the company has long produced membranes that are used in the petrochemical industry, helping to keep transformers on and able to do preventative maintenance.

About eight years ago, however, when Stuart’s daughter, Erica, was named CEO following a career at McKinsey & Co. where she led business development efforts, CMS began to branch out. It has hired several University of Delaware chemical engineering graduates, such as Vice President of Product Development Ken Loprete and Business Development Lead Christine Parrish, who have helped push it toward carbon capture and greener industrial practices.

Those new projects will lead CMS to add about 12 more workers to its staff of 20 over the next year, and possibly add more space from its current Water Street labs and offices in Newport.

Its newest creation is Optiperm, a patented membrane that can assist in the separation of olefin and paraffin – compounds that include things like propane gas for your grill and polypropylene that makes much of the world’s plastic.

“That matters because just the separation of olefins and paraffins take up the same amount of energy as the country of Singapore,” Parrish told Gov. John Carney during a March visit. “So, anything you can do to improve the energy efficiency of that is groundbreaking.”

If successfully scaled, CMS’ membrane could replace the tall distillation towers that dot oil refineries like the Delaware City Refinery, where the company has already completed pilot projects. When retrofitted to distillation towers, the CMS membranes would make the separation about 30% more energy efficient, Parrish said.

CMS is now working on a 1 to 4 ton per day pilot demonstration for the technology at the Braskem plant just over the border in Marcus Hook, Pa., that will launch at the end of 2024. Commercialization could follow if the Braskem project proves successful.

The company is also working on carbon capture technology, with a membrane that can separate nitrogen from carbon dioxide, allowing the harmful greenhouse gas to be sequestered.

“All of your heavy industry that requires something to be burned – like cement, steel, limestone and most chemical processes – have a flue stack producing carbon dioxide and nitrogen. If you can separate the two, nitrogen is safe to put back into the atmosphere and removing that CO2 prevents global warming,” Parrish said.

Customer interest in that project has grown rapidly over the past year, especially as the federal Inflation Reduction Act included new subsidies on carbon capture and the production of hydrogen gas, Parrish said. 

“Five years ago, nobody wanted to talk to us about carbon capture. Last year, the IRA bill got signed and suddenly your phone is ringing off the hook,” Parrish said. “Everybody made commitments, and the electrification and hydrogen markets aren’t coming as fast as they thought. So, they need an intermediate step. It’s about a more practical, phased approach to decarbonization and carbon capture is a pivotal step.”

CMS is working through the commercialization of its carbon capture unit, but it aims to bring its fully amortized costs down to a range of $45 to $50 per ton of carbon dioxide captured. With pipeline and sequestration costs pushing production expense to an estimated $60 to $65 per ton, producers could still see net profit due to the IRA’s $85 per ton subsidy.

The third project for CMS is a membrane to slow post-harvest fruit ripening, where it removes the ethylene gas produced by ripening fruit that triggers continued ripening. The company is piloting its membrane with the Food Bank of Delaware to study its impact and hopes to expand the work.

“It augments cold storage chains and allows for food insecure areas to keep their produce fresh. It’s actually an extension of that olefin-paraffin technology that we didn’t expect, but it was a really nice find,” Parrish said, noting that if successfully implemented in refrigerated containers, shippers may be able to raise storage temperatures, reducing energy consumption and food waste.

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