Imperial College London has launched the Barrer Centre focused on further pushing the boundaries of membrane separation technology — a subject the department of chemical engineering there has long specialized in.
Using membranes for separation can provide a more-efficient, non-thermal alternative to energy-intensive distillation and evaporation. Membranes boast the potential to cut energy consumption significantly, as well as reduce pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. Industrial applications for membranes are vast and include areas such as water recovery, environmental protection, energy conversion, fluid separation and bioprocessing.
The center is named in honor of Richard Barrer, professor of chemistry and former head of the chemistry department at Imperial credited with breakthrough research in polymer membranes and molecular transport in microporous media and establishing the field of zeolite research and its applications in industry.
Led by a team of chemical engineering academics at Imperial, including professor Andrew G. Livingston, the center focuses on fostering mutually beneficial collaborations between academics and external organizations as well as the public to enhance discovery and innovation within the separations field.
The center will target solutions to some global challenges and include areas in which its team already has a track record of producing top-class, applicable research, such as the development of ultra-thin, super-strong membranes to filter liquids and gases; and “designer” polymer membranes that increase the efficiency of chemical separation processes.
The center also will concentrate on technology transfer and commercial entrepreneurship through the design of systems for specific industrial applications, as well as providing training and technical information for engineers in research and industry.
Livingston has long focused on research and development of novel technologies for manufacturing chemicals and biopharmaceuticals — particularly when it involves the discovery and fabrication of new membrane materials and designs.
His Imperial team already works on formation of polymeric and ceramic membranes, design, fabrication and testing of membrane elements, and modeling and understanding membrane transport and membrane processes to create ever more precise polymers.
In addition, Livingston has worked with London-based company Membrane Extraction Technology, focusing on membranes for molecular separations. Its two main membrane separation technologies are used in gentle active pharmaceutical intermediate (API) concentration and purification, non-thermal solvent recovery and management, and room-temperature solvent exchange applications.
Imperial College also is part of the SynFabFun (from membrane material synthesis to fabrication and function) program, funded by a £4.5-million ($5.5-million) grant from the U.K. Engineering and Physical Science Research Council.
Based at Newcastle University and drawing on process engineering expertise from the universities of Bath, Manchester and Edinburgh, SynFabFun has four work packages covering polymeric membranes, hybrid membranes, ceramic membranes and membrane characterization.
Working with industrial partners including BP International, Evonik Industries, Johnson Matthey and GlaxoSmithKline, the group is trying to understand the inter-relationships between the four topics, while developing advanced characterization techniques at the same time.
By analyzing the long-term operation of the different membranes, the researchers aim to combine the different groups’ signature platforms for materials synthesis and membrane fabrication to create what they describe as breakthrough membranes with unparalleled robustness targeted towards key applications.
These include purification of products from organic processes of relevance to pharmaceutical and fine chemical companies using membrane processes, including organic solvent nanofiltration; and water permeation and purification using nanofiltration, forward and reverse osmosis, and dual proton and oxygen ion conduction. (For more on SynFabFun, see “Europe Seeks Better Membrane Performance.”)
Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can email him at email@example.com.