Engineered polymer membranes could be a new option for water treatment plants looking to more efficiently filter contaminants from drinking water.
Researchers from the University of Notre Dame have developed self-assembled block polymer membranes that can be used for both customized and uniform pore sizes as a platform for water treatment systems.
“Most state-of-the-art membranes for water treatment are designed to let water pass through while filtering contaminants,” William Phillip, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Notre Dame, said in a statement. “This approach limits the ability to remove or recover dissolved species based on their chemical identity.
“The exciting thing about self-assembled block polymer membranes is that you can engineer the nanostructure and pore wall chemistry of the membrane through the design of the block polymer molecules,” he added. “This capability has the potential to open up a variety of new separation mechanisms that can isolate species based on chemical identity, which in turn could help to enable decentralized reuse of wastewater.”
Polymer membranes act as a filter to desalinate and selectively remove contaminants from various water sources. However, their selectivity is a challenge for filtering chemical properties that can be a potential risk to the environment and human health.
In the study, researchers focused on block polymer membranes due to their well-defined nanostructures and functionality. The team molecularly engineered the chemical properties of the polymer to develop large areas of high-performance membranes, reduce pore size and design multifunctional pore wall chemistries for solute-specific separation.
The membranes could be customized, depending on the water source and treatment needed.
Membranes that are more selective, resilient and less prone to collecting unwanted properties could improve treatment in several different ways.
This new method could reduce the number of filtration passes needed for irrigation, as well as control concentrations of chlorine into the system mitigating the effects of biofouling and reducing the chemical demands for membrane cleaning—ultimately bringing down operating costs and lessening the environmental impact.
However, for the new technology to be commercially viable, researchers must transition the technology from the laboratory setting to practice.
The researchers are hopeful the transition can be made, as several of the techniques used to generate self-assembled block polymers are consistent with current membrane fabrication practices.