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Matthew Cowan

2016: Dr Mathew Cowan, University of Canterbury, has been awarded Rutherford Foundation postdoctoral fellowship for research entitled: “Materials and process engineering for low-energy olefin/paraffin separations”

Take a moment to consider the objects around you. Do you ever wonder where they came from? What went in to making them? How many steps removed that object is from the natural resources it’s made of? Undoubtedly, there is an object containing plastic nearby. Plastic is now integral to the quality of human life and vital to scientific advancement. From providing water for refugee camps, to spacecraft, electronics, and construction, plastic is ubiquitous.

The story of where plastic comes from is fascinating. It’s amazing to think that the plastic objects around you were once an olefin gas produced from oil at 800°C in a cracking process that also produced a paraffin gas so physically similar that separating them is one of the most energy intensive processes in the world. That hot olefin/paraffin gas mixture was compressed to a pressure of 20 atmospheres and cooled to negative 25°C, then distilled 200 times until the olefin gas was finally pure enough to be polymerized into the plastic used to make… your ballpoint pen. If you imagine the enormous amount of energy you spent was worth it to produce your pen, then the world agrees with you. Humanity invests around 0.3% of the total energy we produce for separating and purifying ethylene gas, just one of the olefins used to make plastics. That amount of energy is greater than is produced by the entirety of New Zealand.

In this project, Dr Cown will design and create a low-energy olefin/paraffin separation process that will have a significant impact on New Zealand and the rest of the world. The global energy savings alone are enormous. Economically and environmentally, high-producing countries such as the U.S. could save ca. $3 billion in energy, equating to ca. 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants.