Next-generation membrane technology for water purification


Water is perhaps Earth’s most critical natural resource. Given increasing demand and increasingly stretched water resources, scientists are pursuing more innovative ways to use and reuse existing water, as well as to design new materials to improve water purification methods. Synthetically created semi-permeable polymer membranes used for contaminant solute removal can provide a level of advanced treatment and improve the energy efficiency of treating water; however, existing knowledge gaps are limiting transformative advances in membrane technology. One basic problem is learning how the affinity, or the attraction, between solutes and membrane surfaces impacts many aspects of the water purification process.

Fouling is where solutes stick to and gunk up membranes significantly reduces performance and is a major obstacle in designing membranes to treat produced water. Now, in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) explains the relevance of macroscopic characterizations of solute-to-surface affinity. Solute-surface interactions in water determine the behavior of a huge range of physical phenomena and technologies, but are particularly important in water separation and purification, where often many distinct types of solutes need to be removed or captured. Their research work tackles the grand challenge of understanding how to design next-generation membranes that can handle huge yearly volumes of highly contaminated water sources, like those produced in oilfield operations, where the concentration of solutes is high and their chemistries quite diverse.”

Solutes are frequently characterized as spanning a range from hydrophilic, which can be thought of as water-liking and dissolving easily in water, to hydrophobic, or water-disliking and preferring to separate from water, like oil. Surfaces span the same range; for example, water beads up on hydrophobic surfaces and spreads out on hydrophilic surfaces. Hydrophilic solutes like to stick to hydrophilic surfaces, and hydrophobic solutes stick to hydrophobic surfaces. Here, the researchers corroborated the expectation that “like sticks to like,” but also discovered, surprisingly, that the complete picture is more complex.

Among the wide range of chemistries that we considered, they found that hydrophilic solutes also like hydrophobic surfaces, and that hydrophobic solutes also like hydrophilic surfaces, though these attractions are weaker than those of like to like. The research group developed an algorithm to repattern surfaces by rearranging surface chemical groups in order to minimize or maximize the affinity of a given solute to the surface, or alternatively, to maximize the surface affinity of one solute relative to that of another. The approach relied on a genetic algorithm that evolved surface patterns in a way similar to natural selection, optimizing them toward a particular function goal.

Through simulations, the team discovered that surface affinity was poorly correlated to conventional methods of solute hydrophobicity, such as how soluble a solute is in water. Instead, they found a stronger connection between surface affinity and the way that water molecules near a surface or near a solute change their structures in response. In some cases, these neighboring waters were forced to adopt structures that were unfavorable; by moving closer to hydrophobic surfaces, solutes could then reduce the number of such unfavorable water molecules, providing an overall driving force for affinity.

The finding is significant because it shows that in designing new surfaces, researchers should focus on the response of water molecules around them and avoid being guided by conventional hydrophobicity metrics. Based on their findings, the authors say that surfaces comprised of different types of molecular chemistries may be the key to achieving multiple performance goals, such as preventing an assortment of solutes from fouling a membrane.

According to the team, their findings show that computational methods can contribute in significant ways to next-generation membrane systems for sustainable water treatment. The results also provided detailed insight into the molecular-scale interactions that control solute-surface affinity. Moreover, it shows that surface patterning offers a powerful design strategy in engineering membranes are resistant to fouling by a variety of contaminants and that can precisely control how each solute type is separated out. As a result, it offers molecular design rules and targets for next-generation membrane systems capable of purifying highly contaminated waters in an energy-efficient manner. Most of the surfaces examined were model systems, simplified to facilitate analysis and understanding. The researchers say that the natural next step will be to examine increasingly complex and realistic surfaces that more closely mimic actual membranes used in water treatment. Another important step to bring the modeling closer to membrane design will be to move beyond understanding merely how sticky a membrane is for a solute and toward computing the rates at which solutes move through membranes.

Next-generation membrane technology for water purification - Advances in Engineering
Concept illustration of a water purification membrane with computationally designed, molecular-scale patterning of surface functional groups, which collectively function to reject a variety of molecular contaminants and foulants. Credit: Brian Long/UCSB

About the author

M. Scott Shell

Professor M. Scott Shell is the Myers Founders Chair Professor and Vice Chair of Chemical Engineering at the University of California Santa Barbara. He earned his B.S. in Chemical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon in 2000 and his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Princeton in 2005, followed by a postdoc in the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at UC San Francisco from 2005-07. He is the recipient of a Dreyfus Foundation New Faculty Award (2007), an NSF CAREER Award (2009), a Hellman Family Faculty Fellowship (2010), a Northrop-Grumman Teaching Award (2011), a Sloan Research Fellowship (2012), a UCSB Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award (2014), the Dudley A. Saville Lectureship at Princeton (2015), and the CoMSEF Impact Award from AIChE (2017).

Prof. Shell’s group develops novel molecular simulation, multiscale modeling, and statistical thermodynamic approaches to address problems in contemporary biophysics and soft condensed matter. Recent areas of interest include self-assembled peptide materials, nanobubbles, hydrophobic interfaces, water purification membranes, and colloid-polymer materials.


Jacob I. Monroe, Sally Jiao, R. Justin Davis, Dennis Robinson Brown, Lynn E. Katz, and  M. Scott Shell. Affinity of small-molecule solutes to hydrophobic, hydrophilic, and chemically patterned interfaces in aqueous solution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2020). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2020205118

Go To Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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