UK researchers to develop ‘immortal membrane’

Development of the next generation of long lasting membranes is underway, thanks to a £4.6m EPSRC research grant.

The five-year project, led by Newcastle University, will explore the potential of new materials to replace existing industrial membrane systems in four main industry sectors: energy, manufacturing, pharma and water. Also involved are industry partners including Johnson Matthey, Evonik, GSK, BP, Pervatech, Bluestone Global Tech, Anglian Water, Severn Trent Water, Thames Water and Scottish Water.

Currently, over 15 per cent of world energy is used in separation systems, covering everything from processing sewage to creating microscopic nanoparticles. Although this could be improved, users are reluctant to try new technologies if their reliability is not proven, so there has been little innovation in the sector. Many widely used membranes are still made from traditional materials and systems which are often short-lived, require regular cleaning and are costly and energy intensive.

The new EPSRC-supported virtual membrane centre SynFabFun – from membrane material synthesis to fabrication and function –  will bring together experts from the universities of Newcastle, Bath, Imperial, Edinburgh and Manchester to develop and implement new membrane systems and techniques.

To prove their reliability, the researchers will subject the membranes to the equivalent of 30 years of use in a shorter timescale through the development and use of accelerated ageing tests, employing membranes at higher temperatures and in the presence of higher concentrations of poisons that they would otherwise experience. Their aim is to develop an immortal membrane – or at least, one that will outlive the lifetime of the industrial plant or  equipment where it is being used. Another key aim is to develop a low-energy technology.

“The membrane separation of molecules from organic solvents would result in very significant energy savings,’ explained project lead Ian Metcalfe, professor of chemical engineering at Newcastle University. ‘Hydrogen and/or carbon dioxide removal from a water-gas shift process in-situ – over a range of temperatures depending upon the nature of the membrane – could change the way we produce hydrogen.”

“In terms of organic membranes we are seeking to work on systems that are already in a relaxed or equilibrium state,’  he added. ‘Such membranes cannot lose permeance as they evolve towards some equilibrium structure. For inorganic membranes we will study – for example – routes to self-healing membranes using techniques such as secondary wetting phases. We will also study hybrid membranes where for example we can introduce two permeation pathways, one for carbonate ions and one for oxygen ions, with the net outcome of a carbon dioxide permeable membrane. Such membranes would allow carbon dioxide permeation under conditions not available to organic membranes.”