The Xometry app works best with JavaScript enabled!
Our SolutionsIndustriesResourcesXometry EnterpriseHow Xometry WorksBecome a Supplier
Additive Manufacturing

3D Printing Service

Metal 3D Printing Service

Solutions For Every Industry
ResourcesMaterialsMolecular Sieve: Purpose, Origin, How It Is Made, Types, and Uses

Molecular Sieve: Purpose, Origin, How It Is Made, Types, and Uses

Xomety X
Written by
Team Xometry
 20 min read
Edited June 1, 2024
Molecular sieve. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/MayPali

Molecular sieves are specially formulated materials that function to selectively adsorb molecules based on size and polarity. Originating from zeolites, these crystalline aluminosilicates form the basis of industrial desiccants. 

The manufacturing process demands precise conditions to give the material uniform pore structures. Molecular sieves play a pivotal role in enhancing industrial processes. They are widely utilized for gas separation, dehydration, and purification.

This article will discuss what molecular sieves are, their purpose and origin, how they are made, and their general types and uses.

What Is a Molecular Sieve?

A molecular sieve is a material with uniform-sized pores that selectively adsorb molecules based on their size and shape. This sieving action arises from the crystalline structure, allowing only certain molecules to pass through while excluding others.

Molecular sieves are typically composed of aluminosilicates or other metal oxides that form three-dimensional lattice patterns. These structures create cavities of precise dimensions that then function as molecular filters. The uniformity of these pores lets them remove certain gases and liquids in various industrial processes, so they can: dry gases, purify liquids, and remove specific contaminants. 

What Does Molecular Sieve Look Like?

Molecular sieves commonly appear as small granular beads or pellets.

Are Molecular Sieves and Zeolite the Same?

No, molecular sieves and zeolites are not interchangeable terms. Molecular sieves are a broader category of materials capable of adsorbing molecules based on size and polarity. 

Zeolites, on the other hand, are a specific type of crystalline aluminosilicate mineral with well-defined structures and uniform pore sizes. They’re commonly used as molecular sieves in industrial applications, but not all molecular sieves are zeolites.

What Does a Molecular Sieve Do?

Molecular sieves are crystalline materials with uniform pores that selectively adsorb molecules based on size and shape. They commonly function as desiccants by removing water molecules from liquids or gases. 

The sieving process relies on the precise structure of the material, allowing only certain molecules to enter and be retained within the pores. This selective adsorption makes molecular sieves valuable in various industrial applications, including: drying and purifying gases, separating isomers, and catalyzing chemical reactions.

The controlled porosity of molecular sieves ensures efficient and specific molecular separation. This makes them especially important for purifying or separating specific substances. 

What Is the Importance of Molecular Sieves in Manufacturing?

Molecular sieves are crucial in manufacturing for their ability to selectively adsorb and separate molecules based on size and shape. They allow users to dehydrate, purify, and enhance the quality of their products. The precise pore structure allows these sieves to act as desiccants, removing water molecules from gases and liquids during various industrial processes.

This selective adsorption capability is particularly valuable in the petrochemical industry, where molecular sieves help dry and purify natural gas and other hydrocarbons. In the production of oxygen and nitrogen, molecular sieves remove moisture and impurities, ensuring sufficient product purity to meet stringent industry standards. Moreover, molecular sieves play a pivotal role in dehydrating automotive refrigerants, enhancing the efficiency of air conditioning systems in vehicles. In pharmaceutical manufacturing, these sieves remove water from chemical reactions, ensuring the quality and stability of the final products. Similarly, they can dehydrate ethanol solutions that need to meet high purity standards. 

What Is the Origin of Molecular Sieves?

The development of molecular sieve material in the 1950s by Union Carbide Corporation marked a significant breakthrough. Researchers Earl W. Valyocsik and Theodore M. Ling were exploring materials with unique adsorption properties when they discovered the crystalline structure of molecular sieves could selectively adsorb certain molecules based on molecular dimensions. This distinguished them from traditional adsorbents. Initially used for dehydrating gases and purifying industrial processes, molecular sieves later found value as catalysts, showcasing their adaptability.

What Is a Molecular Sieve Made Of?

Molecular sieves are composed of crystalline aluminosilicates — often of the type called zeolites — known for their well-defined porous structures. These structures consist of three-dimensional networks of tetrahedrally bonded aluminum and silicon atoms, forming cages and channels within the material. Common materials that go into the sieves include alumina, silica, and alkali metal oxides, which contribute to the formation of intricate pore structures within the crystalline lattice.

Alumina makes the framework more stable, silica influences the pore size and shape, and alkali metal oxides aid in the crystallization process. The specific composition in terms of both material types and their proportions, determines whether the sieve will work for dehydration, gas separation, catalysis, or other functions.

How Is a Molecular Sieve Made?

A molecular sieve is made through a hydrothermal synthesis process, combining alumina, silica, and alkali metal oxides under high-temperature and high-pressure conditions.

In this method, a precise mixture of these raw materials is heated in a controlled manner, promoting the formation of crystalline aluminosilicates known as zeolites. The alumina provides structural stability, silica influences pore characteristics, and alkali metal oxides assist in the crystallization process.

The hydrothermal conditions allow the crystalline lattice to grow gradually and also determine the pore size and structure. The outcome is a molecular sieve with well-defined channels and cavities, making it effective for applications such as: molecular separation, dehydration, and catalysis.

Is It Possible To Make a DIY Molecular Sieve?

No, it is not practical or feasible to make a DIY Molecular Sieve. The synthesis of molecular sieves involves complex and controlled hydrothermal conditions, precise ratios of raw materials such as alumina, silica, and alkali metal oxides, and specific temperature and pressure parameters. It’s unlikely you’d be able to achieve all these conditions without specialized equipment and expertise. The resulting product would not be uniform enough to act as an effective molecular sieve. Moreover, the industrial production of molecular sieves demands quality control processes to ensure consistent and reliable performance. Attempting a DIY approach would not only be impractical but could also pose safety risks due to the specialized conditions involved in the synthesis process.

What Are the Properties of Molecular Sieve?

Molecular sieves exhibit properties such as controllable pore sizes, high adsorption capacity, selectivity, stability, and versatility, making them vital in various industrial applications. Table 1 below shows the properties of molecular sieves:

Table 1: Properties of Molecular Sieve
PropertyDescription
Property
Composition
Description
Typically composed of crystalline aluminosilicates such as zeolites, with well-defined porous structures.
Property
Pore Size
Description
Exhibits uniform and controllable pore sizes, influencing its ability to selectively adsorb molecules.
Property
Adsorption Capacity
Description
Possesses high adsorption capacity due to the large surface area and the presence of numerous active adsorption sites.
Property
Selectivity
Description
Selectively adsorbs specific molecules based on size, shape, and chemical properties.
Property
Stability
Description
Exhibits thermal and chemical stability, making it suitable for a wide range of industrial applications.
Property
Regenerability
Description
Can be regenerated by removing adsorbed molecules through controlled heating or vacuum treatments.
Property
Catalytic Activity
Description
Some types display catalytic activity, allowing them to participate in chemical reactions.
Property
Mechanical Strength
Description
Mechanically strong enough to withstand handling and pressure changes in various gas and liquid processes
Property
Hydrophilicity/Hydrophobicity
Description
May exhibit hydrophilic or hydrophobic characteristics, influencing the sieve’s interaction with water or organic compounds.
Property
Application Versatility
Description
Used in diverse applications such as: gas separation, dehydration, catalysis, and selective adsorption processes.

What Are Molecular Sieve Packets Made Of?

Molecular sieve packets are typically made of a porous material such as Tyvek® or non-woven fabric. Tyvek, a high-density polyethylene fiber material, offers a balance of breathability, durability, and tear resistance. The porous nature of these materials facilitates the adsorption and desorption processes, allowing efficient interactions between the molecular sieve and the surrounding environment.

The choice of container materials is crucial to ensuring the packets remain effective in their intended applications, such as: adsorbing moisture in packaging, preventing corrosion in electronics, or maintaining dryness in pharmaceuticals. The package material must be permeable to the relevant gases and also robust enough to ensure the sieve material’s longevity. 

What Are the Different Types of Molecular Sieves?

The four main types of molecular sieves are discussed below:

1. 3A

3A molecular sieve is a crystalline aluminosilicate with 3-angstrom pore openings. It selectively adsorbs water molecules. 3A is perfect for removing water from gases and liquids, so it’s central to some dehydration processes.

Compared to 4A molecular sieves, 3A has smaller pores, enabling the removal of water and other smaller molecules while excluding larger ones. This distinction is crucial in applications where precise molecular size exclusion is required. Natural gas drying and ethanol dehydration are prominent examples.

2. 4A

4A molecular sieve is a crystalline aluminosilicate whose pores measure 4 angstroms in size. This specific pore size allows it to selectively adsorb molecules smaller than 4A, making it particularly useful for dehydration purposes.

In natural gas and air compression systems, 4A molecular sieve material effectively removes water molecules, preventing corrosion and ice buildup. Its functionality relies on the preferential adsorption of water over larger molecules. 

Like 3A and 5A Molecular Sieves, the 4A variant's unique pore size positions it as an ideal adsorber of certain types of molecules, including, but not limited to water. 

3. 5A

5A molecular sieve possesses crystalline aluminosilicate structures with 5-angstrom pores. This specific pore size allows for the selective adsorption of molecules smaller than 5A, making it ideal for separating certain gases and purifying liquids. 

Its application often involves removing impurities such as water, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide from various gas streams. In comparison to 4A and 3A molecular sieves, the 5A variant's larger pore size expands its utility, especially in gas purification and dehydration processes across industries.

4. 13X

13X molecular sieve material is characterized by its crystalline aluminosilicate structure featuring 13-angstrom pores. This large pore size enables the selective adsorption of molecules smaller than 13A.

Its predominant use lies in the separation of nitrogen from oxygen in air, as well as in the dehydration of natural gas and other hydrocarbons. This molecular sieve preferentially adsorbs moisture and other impurities from gases made of larger molecules.  

When compared to smaller-pored molecular sieves like 4A and 5A, the 13X variant stands out for its versatility in handling larger molecules, contributing to its unique industrial value. 

What Are the Uses of Molecular Sieve?

Molecular sieves are versatile enough to be valuable in many industries. Some of their tasks include:

  1. Dehydration: This is the process of removing water molecules from liquids or gases. It is important in industries like natural gas processing to prevent ice and corrosion.
  2. Gas Separation: This involves separating different gases based on their molecular sizes. Molecular sieves allow air separation units to produce high-purity oxygen, nitrogen, and other gases.
  3. Air Drying: Like dehydration, this is done to prevent corrosion and improve product quality. It is common in compressed air systems and industrial applications that need dry air.
  4. Adsorbent Beds: Full beds of adsorbent materials help purify hydrogen in refineries.
  5. Insulating Glass: The air inside double-pane windows should be free of humidity to prevent condensation and enhance thermal insulation. 
  6. Refrigerant Drying: Moisture can cause damage if it infiltrates refrigerant lines. Refrigeration and air conditioning systems operate efficiently over longer lifespans if any water is judiciously removed. 
  7. Ethanol Production: Water and impurity removal is part of the ethanol purification process. An adsorbent step is important to biofuel production and quality assurance. 

How Do Molecular Sieves and Silica Gel Differ in Uses?

Molecular sieves and silica gel differ based on their adsorption capabilities and applications. Molecular sieves — typically zeolites — excel in selective adsorption of specific molecules, making them suitable for precise dehydration in industries like natural gas processing and air separation.

They are also employed in catalysis and gas separation processes due to their well-defined pores. On the other hand, silica gel, an amorphous form of silica, is commonly used for general-purpose moisture absorption in products such as: electronics, pharmaceuticals, and food packaging. While both are desiccants, they serve distinct purposes in different industries.

How To Properly Use Molecular Sieves 

Proper usage of molecular sieves means following key guidelines:

  1. Choose the molecular sieve based on the specific application, considering factors like pore size and adsorption capacity.
  2. If the molecular sieve has been stored for an extended period, precondition it by heating or placing it under vacuum to remove any adsorbed moisture.
  3. Create a bed or layer of molecular sieve in the adsorption system, distributing it evenly to maximize contact with the target substance.
  4. Operate the system within the sieve material’s recommended temperature range; some types work optimally at specific temperatures. 
  5. Regularly monitor the adsorption performance using appropriate indicators or instruments to determine when the molecular sieve needs regeneration or replacement.
  6. When the molecular sieve reaches its adsorption capacity, initiate the regeneration process by either heating or applying a vacuum to remove the adsorbed substances.
  7. Prevent exposure to contaminants that may interfere with the adsorption process. 
  8. Keep the adsorption system properly sealed to prevent the entry of ambient moisture or other contaminants. 
  9. Periodically replace the molecular sieve material based on its lifespan and performance degradation. 

Can Molecular Sieve Be Used on Manganese Bronze?

No, molecular sieve is not typically used on manganese bronze. Manganese bronze contains significant amounts of copper, manganese, and other elements and is not prone to the same issues that molecular sieves address. Molecular sieves are primarily designed for applications such as dehydration, gas separation, and adsorption, where the material's porous structure plays a crucial role. 

Molecular sieves are not specifically formulated to protect metal alloys like manganese bronze. Manganese bronze is not prone to the same issues that molecular sieves address, such as water adsorption or gas separation. Instead, corrosion-resistant coatings, lubricants, or other protective measures are more suitable for preserving the integrity of such alloys. 

How Many Molecular Sieves Should You Use?

The quantity of molecular sieve material to use depends on: the specific application, the size of the adsorption system, and the desired level of moisture removal or gas separation. The total amount matters because it directly influences the efficiency and effectiveness of the process.

The optimal amount can be calculated based on factors like: the volume of the adsorption bed, the characteristics of the molecular sieves used, and the targeted level of adsorption. Overloading the system may lead to diminished performance and obstructed flow, while using an insufficient amount may result in incomplete moisture removal or inadequate separation of gases.

What Happens if the Molecular Sieve Gets Wet?

If your molecular sieve gets wet, it undergoes a process known as hydrothermal degradation, which reduces its adsorption capacity and efficiency.

The crystalline structure of molecular sieves is sensitive to moisture. When exposed to water, the pores within the structure may become partially or filled, limiting their ability to selectively adsorb specific molecules. This compromises their functionality, especially in applications such as dehydration or gas separation.

Hydrothermal degradation can lead to irreversible changes in the molecular sieve's structure as it induces permanent alterations, impacting its overall performance. Regeneration processes involving controlled heating or vacuum treatments are often employed to remove the adsorbed moisture and revive at least some of its adsorption capabilities. 

What Are the Precautions for Using a Molecular Sieve?

Follow some basic precautions when using molecular sieves to keep them safe and effective: 

  1. Familiarize yourself with the safety data provided by the molecular sieve manufacturer, including hazard information, recommended handling procedures, and emergency response measures.
  2. Wear appropriate PPE, such as gloves and safety glasses, to protect against potential skin contact and eye irritation during handling.
  3. Handle molecular sieve material with care, avoiding rough handling or sudden impacts. Store in a cool, dry place away from incompatible substances, and follow recommended storage conditions.
  4. If required, follow the manufacturer’s recommended activation procedures before use to ensure optimal performance.
  5. Avoid breathing dust generated during handling or processing. Use adequate ventilation or respiratory protection to minimize inhalation risks.
  6. When regenerating molecular sieves, follow proper safety procedures, including the use of appropriate equipment, to prevent exposure to high temperatures or hazardous byproducts.

What Happens if Someone Eats a Molecular Sieve?

Consuming molecular sieve material is not safe and can lead to serious health risks. They often contain substances that can be harmful if ingested.

Inhalation or ingestion of molecular sieve dust can result in respiratory and gastrointestinal irritation. The crystalline structure of molecular sieves may also pose mechanical hazards, causing damage to internal organs if swallowed. Additionally, constituent materials such as alumina and silica can have adverse health effects when introduced into the digestive system. If accidental ingestion occurs, seek medical attention immediately. 

Can Molecular Sieve Be Used To Store Food Safely?

No, molecular sieves should not be used in conjunction with food in any way. Molecular sieves are designed for specific industrial applications such as dehydration and gas separation. They often contain chemicals or undergo processes during manufacturing that make them unsuitable and potentially unsafe for direct contact with food. The desiccant materials you see in food packaging are made of nontoxic silica gel. 

How Long Do Molecular Sieves Take to Work?

The time it takes for molecular sieves to adsorb or separate molecules in a given process can vary widely depending on several factors, including: the type of molecular sieve, the specific application, and the conditions of the adsorption system. 

In some cases, the adsorption process can be rapid, with molecules being captured within minutes or hours. However, more complex separations or applications with large quantities of gas or liquid may take longer, ranging from hours to days.

The efficiency of molecular sieves is influenced by factors such as: temperature, pressure, and the concentration of the target molecules. Higher temperatures often accelerate the adsorption process, while increased pressure can enhance the overall adsorption capacity.

How Long Does Molecular Sieve Last?

The longevity of molecular sieves varies, but they can typically last for several cycles of adsorption and regeneration when used under appropriate conditions. The lifespans of most molecular sieves can range from months to years, depending on the nature of the adsorption process and the type of molecules they are exposed to. In some cases, their adsorption capacity diminishes over time. The duration is influenced by factors such as: the specific type of molecular sieve, the application, and the effectiveness of the regeneration process.

Are Molecular Sieves Reusable?

Yes, molecular sieves are typically reusable. The adsorbed molecules can be removed through a process known as regeneration, allowing the molecular sieves to regain their adsorption capacity.

Regeneration typically involves controlled heating or applying a vacuum to release the adsorbed substances and restore the original properties of the molecular sieve structure. This ability not only contributes to cost-effectiveness but also aligns these materials with sustainable practices, reducing the need for frequent replacements. However, the success of regeneration depends on factors such as: the type of molecular sieve, the specific application, and the efficiency of the regeneration process. Regular monitoring and proper maintenance are crucial to ensuring optimal performance and longevity.

How Much Does Molecular Sieve Cost?

The cost of molecular sieves varies depending on factors such as: type, quantity, and application. Generally speaking, molecular sieves are considered moderately priced in the realm of desiccants and adsorbents. 

The expenses are justified by the material’s effectiveness, durability, and ability to be regenerated. Different types of molecular sieves, such as zeolites or activated alumina, may vary in cost based on their production complexity and versatility.

For specific pricing information, request quotes from suppliers or manufacturers. They can guide you to the best option for your given industrial process.

What Are the Advantages of Molecular Sieves?

Here are some advantages of molecular sieves:

  1. By weight, they adsorb a significant amount of gasses and liquids due to their well-defined pore structures.
  2. They can selectively adsorb specific molecules based on size, shape, and chemical properties, allowing for precise separation and purification.
  3. Adsorption capability can be regenerated by removing adsorbed substances through controlled heating or vacuum treatments, extending the materials’ lifespans and reducing replacement costs.
  4. They are stable under a wide range of temperatures and chemical environments, making them suitable for various industrial processes.
  5. They contain well-defined and controllable pore sizes, enabling precise control over the types and sizes of molecules that can be adsorbed.

What Are the Disadvantages of Molecular Sieves?

Some disadvantages of molecular sieve are listed below:

  1. Each type is tailored for certain molecules, so no one sieve material is universally applicable. 
  2. The initial cost of molecular sieves — especially specialized types — can be relatively high, impacting the economic feasibility of some applications.
  3. The regeneration process often requires energy, either in the form of heating or vacuum treatment, which can contribute to operational costs.
  4. Molecular sieves, particularly in bead or pellet form, can be fragile and prone to breakage during handling, potentially leading to decreased efficiency.
  5. Some molecular sieves have limited chemical compatibility, making them unsuitable for applications with aggressive or corrosive substances.
  6. Certain molecular sieves can’t adsorb larger molecules, restricting their use in processes involving such substances.
  7. Incorporating molecular sieves into large-scale systems can be complex and may require sophisticated engineering solutions, adding to the overall complexity and cost of the setup.
  8. The efficiency of molecular sieves can be influenced by operating conditions, such as temperature and pressure, which need to be carefully controlled for optimal performance.

Are Molecular Sieves Flammable?

No, molecular sieves are not flammable. Composed primarily of crystalline aluminosilicates like zeolites or other inert materials, they do not combust. Their chemical composition and structure make them stable under normal operating conditions.

It is essential to note that while molecular sieves themselves are not flammable, precautions should be taken when handling or storing them alongside other materials that may pose fire hazards. Always follow safety guidelines for material storage and handling. 

Are Molecular Sieve Hazardous?

No, molecular sieves are not inherently hazardous. Molecular sieves are generally considered safe when used as intended in industrial applications. However, like any chemical or adsorbent material, certain precautions must be taken during handling to avoid potential health and safety risks.

It is crucial to follow recommended safety guidelines, wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), and be aware of the specific hazards associated with the type of molecular sieve in use. Additionally, exposure to dust generated during handling should be minimized, and proper ventilation measures must be implemented to ensure a safe working environment.

What Is the Difference Between a Molecular Sieve and Silica Gel?

Molecular sieves and silica gel are both desiccants. This means they are used to absorb and remove moisture from a closed environment. However, there are differences between them such as:

  1. Composition: Silica gel is a porous form of silica dioxide, typically synthesized into small granules or beads. It has a high surface area with numerous microscopic pores that absorb moisture molecules. Molecular sieves, on the other hand, are crystalline metal aluminosilicates with uniform and precisely sized pores. They are available in various types, such as zeolites, which have specific pore sizes to selectively adsorb certain molecules while excluding others.
  2. Pore Size and Selectivity: Silica gel has a wide range of pore sizes, making it effective for adsorbing a variety of molecules, including water vapor. However, it is less selective compared to molecular sieves. Meanwhile, molecular sieves have well-defined and uniform pore sizes, allowing for greater selectivity in adsorption. Different types of molecular sieves can be chosen based on the size and type of molecules to be adsorbed.
  3. Adsorption Capacity: Silica gel has a high adsorption capacity for moisture, making it suitable for a wide range of applications. Molecular sieves, on the other hand, typically have a higher adsorption capacity for specific molecules due to their selective pore sizes, making them more efficient in certain applications.
  4. Regeneration: Silica gel can be regenerated by heating it to remove absorbed moisture, making it reusable. Meanwhile, molecular sieves can also be regenerated through heating, but the process may vary depending on the specific type of sieve and the molecules adsorbed.

Summary

This article presented molecular sieve, explained it, and discussed its purpose and various applications. To learn more about molecular sieve, contact a Xometry representative.

Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities and other value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.

  1. Tyvek® is a registered trademark owned by affiliates of DuPont de Nemours, Inc.

Disclaimer

The content appearing on this webpage is for informational purposes only. Xometry makes no representation or warranty of any kind, be it expressed or implied, as to the accuracy, completeness, or validity of the information. Any performance parameters, geometric tolerances, specific design features, quality and types of materials, or processes should not be inferred to represent what will be delivered by third-party suppliers or manufacturers through Xometry’s network. Buyers seeking quotes for parts are responsible for defining the specific requirements for those parts. Please refer to our terms and conditions for more information.

Xomety X
Team Xometry
This article was written by various Xometry contributors. Xometry is a leading resource on manufacturing with CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, injection molding, urethane casting, and more.

Read more articles by Team Xometry

Quick Links

  • Home

  • Contact Us

  • Help Center

  • About Us

  • Careers

  • Press

  • Investors

  • Xometry Go Green

  • Invite a Colleague

Support

  • Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Legal

  • ITAR | ISO 9001:2015 | AS9100D | ISO 13485:2016 | IATF 16949:2016


© 2024 Xometry, All Rights Reserved