Mussel-inspired membrane breaks new ground in wastewater treatment

Engineers have made a remarkable breakthrough by creating a cutting-edge thin-film composite nanoporous membrane known as TFC NPM, taking inspiration from mussels. This remarkable membrane effectively separates salts and other chemical components from wastewater with unprecedented efficiency, reaching more than 99%, while consuming less energy and being more cost-effective compared to existing membranes used in electrodialysis.

The groundbreaking research, detailed in a Nature Water publication on August 3, was a collaborative effort between academics from the University of Bath in the U.K. and researchers from China, South Korea, Singapore, Australia, and Belgium. This innovative membrane opens up exciting possibilities for various industries, such as pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, textiles, and food processing, to improve sustainability and reuse valuable resources extracted from wastewater.

Dr. Ming Xie, one of the paper’s authors and a Chemical Engineering lecturer at the University of Bath, believes that this membrane could bring a paradigm shift in how we perceive wastewater treatment. Instead of considering it as a necessary business cost, industries can now leverage technologies like this membrane to reduce carbon emissions by lowering energy requirements and efficiently separating and reusing chemicals, salts, energy, biomass, and nutrients as high-value by-products.

The key to the membrane’s success lies in its unique coating, comprised of the polymer polyethyleneimine (PEI) and polydopamine (PDA), which mimics the stickiness found in mussels’ ability to adhere to surfaces in wet conditions. This selective coating allows water to pass through while blocking other compounds and organic materials, resulting in improved water filtration and a highly efficient, low-energy way to fractionate chemicals individually.

During testing, the researchers demonstrated the membrane’s outstanding electro-driven filtration performance using four antibiotics in saltwater solutions. The membrane achieved exceptional desalination efficiency of over 99.3% and an impressive antibiotic recovery rate of more than 99.1%. If incorporated into industrial wastewater treatment, the membrane could outperform conventional processes, enabling highly effective electrodialytic fractionation of various organic and NaCl mixed solutions.

Co-author Dr. Dong Han Seo from the Department of Energy Engineering at the Korea Institute of Energy Technology emphasized the significance of this work in the pharmaceutical industry, enabling bio-based wastewater treatment and the recovery of valuable chemicals while obtaining reusable water with minimal energy consumption.

Dr. Jiuyang Lin from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, also a co-author, praised the membrane’s simplicity, effectiveness, and long-term stability, regardless of wastewater conditions, marking it as a breakthrough in electrodialysis for wastewater treatment.

With such promising results, the researchers are now exploring avenues to commercialize this revolutionary membrane, potentially transforming wastewater treatment and resource recovery in multiple industries.

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