Molecular sieve
A molecular sieve is a material containing tiny pores of a precise and uniform size that is used as an adsorbent
Adsorption is the adhesion of atoms, ions, biomolecules or molecules of gas, liquid, or dissolved solids to a surface. This process creates a film of the adsorbate on the surface of the adsorbent. It differs from absorption, in which a fluid permeates or is dissolved by a liquid or solid...

 for gas
Gas is one of the three classical states of matter . Near absolute zero, a substance exists as a solid. As heat is added to this substance it melts into a liquid at its melting point , boils into a gas at its boiling point, and if heated high enough would enter a plasma state in which the electrons...

es and liquid
Liquid is one of the three classical states of matter . Like a gas, a liquid is able to flow and take the shape of a container. Some liquids resist compression, while others can be compressed. Unlike a gas, a liquid does not disperse to fill every space of a container, and maintains a fairly...


A molecule is an electrically neutral group of at least two atoms held together by covalent chemical bonds. Molecules are distinguished from ions by their electrical charge...

s small enough to pass through the pores are adsorbed
Adsorption is the adhesion of atoms, ions, biomolecules or molecules of gas, liquid, or dissolved solids to a surface. This process creates a film of the adsorbate on the surface of the adsorbent. It differs from absorption, in which a fluid permeates or is dissolved by a liquid or solid...

 while larger molecules are not. It is different from a common filter in that it operates on a molecular level and traps the adsorbed substance. For instance, a water molecule may be small enough to pass through the pores while larger molecules are not, so water is forced into the pores which act as a trap for the penetrating water molecules, which are retained within the pores. Because of this, they often function as a desiccant
A desiccant is a hygroscopic substance that induces or sustains a state of dryness in its local vicinity in a moderately well-sealed container....

. A molecular sieve can adsorb water up to 22% of its own weight. The principle of adsorption to molecular sieve particles is somewhat similar to that of size exclusion chromatography
Size exclusion chromatography
Size-exclusion chromatography is a chromatographic method in which molecules in solution are separated by their size, and in some cases molecular weight . It is usually applied to large molecules or macromolecular complexes such as proteins and industrial polymers...

, except that without a changing solution composition, the adsorbed product remains trapped because in the absence of other molecules able to penetrate the pore and fill the space, a vacuum
In everyday usage, vacuum is a volume of space that is essentially empty of matter, such that its gaseous pressure is much less than atmospheric pressure. The word comes from the Latin term for "empty". A perfect vacuum would be one with no particles in it at all, which is impossible to achieve in...

 would be created by desorption.

Often they consist of aluminosilicate
Aluminosilicate minerals are minerals composed of aluminium, silicon, and oxygen, plus countercations. They are a major component of kaolin and other clay minerals....

A mineral is a naturally occurring solid chemical substance formed through biogeochemical processes, having characteristic chemical composition, highly ordered atomic structure, and specific physical properties. By comparison, a rock is an aggregate of minerals and/or mineraloids and does not...

s, clay
Clay is a general term including many combinations of one or more clay minerals with traces of metal oxides and organic matter. Geologic clay deposits are mostly composed of phyllosilicate minerals containing variable amounts of water trapped in the mineral structure.- Formation :Clay minerals...

s, porous glass
Glass is an amorphous solid material. Glasses are typically brittle and optically transparent.The most familiar type of glass, used for centuries in windows and drinking vessels, is soda-lime glass, composed of about 75% silica plus Na2O, CaO, and several minor additives...

es, microporous charcoal
Charcoal is the dark grey residue consisting of carbon, and any remaining ash, obtained by removing water and other volatile constituents from animal and vegetation substances. Charcoal is usually produced by slow pyrolysis, the heating of wood or other substances in the absence of oxygen...

s, zeolite
Zeolites are microporous, aluminosilicate minerals commonly used as commercial adsorbents. The term zeolite was originally coined in 1756 by Swedish mineralogist Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, who observed that upon rapidly heating the material stilbite, it produced large amounts of steam from water that...

s, active carbon
Carbon is the chemical element with symbol C and atomic number 6. As a member of group 14 on the periodic table, it is nonmetallic and tetravalent—making four electrons available to form covalent chemical bonds...

s, or synthetic compounds that have open structures through which small molecules, such as nitrogen and water can diffuse.

Molecular sieves are often utilized in the petroleum
Petroleum or crude oil is a naturally occurring, flammable liquid consisting of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights and other liquid organic compounds, that are found in geologic formations beneath the Earth's surface. Petroleum is recovered mostly through oil drilling...

 industry, especially for the purification of gas streams and in the chemistry laboratory for separating compounds and drying reaction starting materials. The mercury
Mercury (element)
Mercury is a chemical element with the symbol Hg and atomic number 80. It is also known as quicksilver or hydrargyrum...

 content of natural gas is extremely harmful to the aluminium piping and other parts of the liquefaction apparatus—silica gel
Silica gel
Silica gel is a granular, vitreous, porous form of silica made synthetically from sodium silicate. Despite its name, silica gel is a solid. It is a naturally occurring mineral that is purified and processed into either granular or beaded form...

 is used in this case.

Methods for regeneration of molecular sieves include pressure change (as in oxygen concentrators), heating and purging with a carrier gas (as when used in ethanol
Ethanol fuel
Ethanol fuel is ethanol , the same type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages. It is most often used as a motor fuel, mainly as a biofuel additive for gasoline. World ethanol production for transport fuel tripled between 2000 and 2007 from 17 billion to more than 52 billion litres...

 dehydration), or heating under high vacuum. Temperatures typically used to regenerate water-adsorbed molecular sieves range from 130 °C to 250 °C.

Adsorption capabilities

  • 3A (pore size 3 Å): Adsorbs NH3, H2O, (not C2H6), good for drying polar liquids.
  • 4A (pore size 4 Å): Adsorbs H2O, CO2, SO2, H2S, C2H4, C2H6, C3H6, ethanol
    Ethanol, also called ethyl alcohol, pure alcohol, grain alcohol, or drinking alcohol, is a volatile, flammable, colorless liquid. It is a psychoactive drug and one of the oldest recreational drugs. Best known as the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, it is also used in thermometers, as a...

    . Will not adsorb C3H8 and higher hydrocarbons. Good for drying nonpolar liquids and gases.
  • 5A (pore size 5 Å): Adsorbs normal (linear) hydrocarbons to n-C4H10, alcohols to C4H9OH, mercaptans to C4H9SH. Will not adsorb isocompounds or ring structures with more than four carbon atoms.
  • 10x (pore size 8 Å): Adsorbs branched hydrocarbons and aromatics. Used for drying gases.
  • 13x (pore size 10 Å): Adsorbs di-n-butylamine (not tri-n-butylamine). Used for drying HMPA
    Hexamethylphosphoramide, often abbreviated HMPA, is a phosphoramide having the formula [2N]3PO. This colorless liquid is a useful polar aprotic solvent and additive in organic synthesis.-Structure and reactivity:...


FDA approval

The United States FDA has not yet approved molecular sieve for direct contact with consumable items, although in Europe it is used with pharmaceuticals. Lack of government approval for the use of molecular sieves in food and drug packaging has limited its more widespread use. Independent testing suggests that molecular sieves meet all government requirements but the industry has been unwilling to fund the expensive testing required for government approval.

Difference between molecular sieves and zeolite

Molecular sieves Zeolites
Able to distinguish materials on the basis of their size Special class of molecular sieves with aluminosilicates as skeletal composition
May be crystalline, non-crystalline, para-crystalline or pillared clays Highly crystalline materials
Variable framework charge with porous structure Anionic framework with microporous and crystalline structure

External links

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