Membrane filtration

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Solar powered desalinisation plant using reverse osmosis to produce clean drinking water. Photo: Solar panel project for the Lower Kolyma region of the Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, Russia: A four year collaboration.
LIFESAVER: World’s First Ultra Filtration Water Bottle. Photo:
Opening day for the safe water kiosk. Designed for affordable community water supply or disaster relief applications, the system combines microfiltration and chlorine disinfection to produce potable water. It removes particulate, bacteria, protozoa, virus and other contaminants greater than 0.1 micron (μm). Photo: Water World.

The membrane processes of most significance in water treatment are reverse osmosis, ultrafiltration, microfiltration and nanofiltration. These processes have traditionally been applied to the production of water for industrial or pharmaceutical applications, but are now being applied to the treatment of drinking-water.

High-pressure processes

If two solutions are separated by a semipermeable membrane (i.e. a membrane that allows the passage of the solvent but not of the solute), the solvent will naturally pass from the lower-concentration solution to the higher-concentration solution. This process is known as osmosis. It is possible, however, to force the flow of solvent in the opposite direction, from the higher to the lower concentration, by increasing the pressure on the higher-concentration solution. The required pressure differential is known as the osmotic pressure, and the process is known as reverse osmosis.

Reverse osmosis results in the production of a treated water stream and a relatively concentrated waste stream. Typical operating pressures are in the range 15–50 bar, depending on the application. Reverse osmosis rejects monovalent ions and organics of molecular weight greater than about 50 daltons (membrane pore sizes are less than 0.002 μm). The most common application of reverse osmosis is desalination of brackish water and seawater.

Nanofiltration uses a membrane with properties between those of reverse osmosis and ultrafiltration membranes; pore sizes are typically 0.001–0.01 μm. Nanofiltration membranes allow monovalent ions such as sodium or potassium to pass but reject a high proportion of divalent ions such as calcium and magnesium and some higher molecular weight organics. Operating pressures are typically about 5 bar. Nanofiltration may be effective for the removal of colour-forming organic compounds.

Lower-pressure processes

Ultrafiltration is similar in principle to reverse osmosis, but the membranes have much larger pore sizes (typically 0.002–0.03 μm) and operate at lower pressures. Ultrafiltration membranes reject organic molecules of molecular weight above about 800 daltons and usually operate at pressures less than 5 bar.

Microfiltration is a direct extension of conventional filtration into the submicrometre range. Microfiltration membranes have pore sizes typically in the range 0.01–12 μm and do not separate molecules but reject colloidal and suspended material at operating pressures of 1–2 bar. Microfiltration is capable of sieving out particles greater than 0.05 μm. It has been used for water treatment in combination with coagulation or PAC to remove particulates and some dissolved organic carbon prior to reverse osmosis membranes and to improve permeate flux.

Suitable conditions

The LifeFilta products (nanofiltration) are distributed worldwide by the SenseSeveri group, with offices in Europe (Belgium), Africa (Bénin, Burundi, Cameroun, Kenya, Uganda) and North America (New York).

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