Separations Technology

Europe Seeks Better Membrane Performance

U.K. boosts funding in search for longer-lasting industrial membranes

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

The search for the next generation of long-lasting — perhaps even “immortal” — industrial membranes has received a boost in the form of a £4.6-million ($6.8-million) research grant from the U.K.’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), London.

Five-year project is designed to develop and implement new membrane systems and techniques.

The money will be used in a five-year project designed to develop and implement new membrane systems and techniques. Headed by Ian Metcalfe, professor of chemical engineering at Newcastle University, Newcastle, U.K., the project brings together a range of polymer, membrane and nanotechnology experts from other universities, including: professor Andrew Livingston, head of the department of chemical engineering at Imperial College London; professor Kang Li, also of Imperial; professor Neil McKeown of the school of chemistry, University of Edinburgh, U.K.; professor Peter Budd of the school of chemistry at Manchester University, Manchester, U.K.; and Dr. Davide Mattia, reader in chemical engineering at the University of Bath, Bath, U.K.

“Membranes offer exciting opportunities for more efficient, lower energy, more sustainable separations and even entirely new process options — and so are valuable tools in an energy-constrained world. However, high performance polymeric, inorganic and ceramic membranes all suffer from problems with decay in performance over time, through either membrane ageing (membrane material relaxation) and/or fouling (foreign material build-up in and/or on the membrane), and this seriously limits their impact,” note the researchers on their funding application.

“Our vision is to create membranes which do not suffer from ageing or fouling, and for which separation functionality is therefore maintained over time. We will achieve this through a combination of the synthesis of new membrane materials and fabrication of novel membrane composites (polymeric, ceramic and hybrids), supported by new characterization techniques. Our ambition is to change the way the global membrane community perceives performance. Through the demonstration of membranes with immortal performance, we seek to shift attention away from a race to achieve ever higher initial permeability, to creation of membranes with long-term stable performance which are successful in industrial applications,” they add.

At the center of the funding effort will be a new virtual membrane center —SynFabFun (material synthesis to fabrication and function) — based at Newcastle.

“Understandably, industry is often reluctant to adopt new systems because the long-term reliability of the membrane can’t be guaranteed,” says Metcalfe. “What we are trying to do is change the way we approach this problem by subjecting the new membranes to the equivalent of 30 years of use — pushing them to their limit — but in a much shorter timescale. Our aim for the next five years is to develop the ‘immortal’ membrane — or at least one that will outlive the lifetime of the industrial plant or particular piece of equipment where it is being used,” he adds.

The program will look at improving membrane performance in four industry sectors important to the U.K. and worldwide: energy, manufacturing, pharma and water. In these industries, membranes have the potential to, and in some cases already do, provide a lower energy alternative to existing separation technology, requiring substantially smaller capital costs, notes Metcalfe.

The significant industry partners involved in the project — Johnson Matthey, Evonik, GSK, BP, and four U.K. water supply companies — highlight the potential importance of the research.

BGT Materials, Manchester, U.K., which specializes in high-quality, fully customizable graphene on substrates including quartz, copper, silicon and others, also is involved. Since September 2013, the company has been collaborating with Manchester University on several graphene projects, including filtration membranes.

Pervatech, Rijssen, The Netherlands, brings other industrial membrane expertise to the project. The company describes itself as the cutting-edge membrane producer for pervaporation and vapor permeation. In March, it announced a partnership with Philips Ceramics, Uden, The Netherlands, Philips’ global competence center for technical ceramics. This will combine Philips’ ceramic substrates and knowledge with Pervatech’s own membrane coating technology. “As leading companies in ceramic membrane separations and ceramics, Pervatech and Philips are uniquely positioned to offer membranes to the industry for in situ dehydration of condensation reactions, enabling yield improvement and efficiency of the process,” notes a statement from Pervatech.

The SynFabFun project itself is part of a broader funding announcement made by the EPSRC which involves a total of £70 million ($104 million) for equipment and projects at 18 universities across the U.K.


Ottewell2Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at sottewell@putman.net