Make the Most of RO Membranes

Proactive steps can maximize life and performance for water purification.

By Gregg Poppe, Dow Water & Process Solutions

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Clean at the appropriate pH and temperature to remove the foulants:

• To remove biofouling, cleaning at pH 12 is much more effective than pH 11— about an order of magnitude better at restoring permeate flow. It's important to know the temperature range permissible for the membrane type at the high pH.
• To remove calcium carbonate scale, cleaning at lower pH and higher temperature restores permeate flow more fully (Figure 5). Some plants use citric acid (Cleaner A in the figure) to remove scale but it's usually not very effective compared to HCl at pH 1 (Cleaners D and E).

More extreme pH is more effective at removing foulants — but not all membrane manufacturers allow cleaning at a pH as high as 12 or as low as 1.

Different foulants require different cleaning protocols to achieve effective results. Consider the following guidelines (if the membrane can handle these conditions):

• Inorganic salts (such as CaCO3): 0.2 wt.% HCl, 25–40°C and pH 1–2.
• Metal oxide (such as iron): 1.0 wt.% sodium hydrosulfite (Na2S2O4), 25°C and pH 5.
• Inorganic colloids (silt), silica, biofilms and organic compounds: 0.1 wt.% NaOH, 35°C max and pH 12 or 0.1 wt.% NaOH and 0.025 wt.% Na-DSS [sodium salt of dodecylsulfate], 35°C max and pH 12.

The cleaning procedure is important. When mixing the cleaning solution, ensure all chemicals are dissolved and well mixed before circulating it through the membrane elements. When first introducing the cleaning solution into the RO system, use a low flow rate while the water in the system is displaced. Also, to avoid driving foulants into the membrane surface, apply only enough pressure to compensate for the pressure drop. Dump the concentrate stream at first for as long as necessary to prevent diluting the cleaning solution upon recycle.

Once cleaning chemicals have displaced water, recycle concentrate and permeate to the cleaning tank. Measure the pH and adjust as needed to maintain the desired value. Monitor the color of the cleaning solution — a color change indicates removal of foulants. Then dispose of the heavily contaminated cleaning solution and mix fresh solution. Continue this for as long as it appears new foulants are being removed. However, with an acid cleaning, recirculating for longer than 20–30 minutes increases the risk of any heavy metals falling out of suspension and becoming permanently embedded on the surface of the membrane, making it more difficult to clean.

Prepare fresh cleaning solution for the soaking step. The length of the soak varies. While alkaline cleanings may require an overnight soak, acid cleanings typically only need 30 minutes. To maintain the desired elevated temperature during an extended soak, use a low recirculation rate through the elements. As before, monitor the color of the cleaning solution and dispose or refresh the solution when you observe a color change.

After the soak, recirculate the cleaning solution at a high flow rate for 30–60 minutes to flush out foulants removed from the membrane surface. Finally, flush out the cleaning solution using RO permeate or deionized water. During the flush, the minimum temperature should be 20°C.

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