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Drinking Water from the Sea: Polymeric Membranes for Desalination

Kamil Ezgin

One billion people in the world live in water-stressed areas, and RO membrane technology is the leading
desalination
technology
to
overcome
the
problem
of
insufficient
clean
water.
Today, more than 1 billion people are suffering from the lack of potable water. About 2.3 billion people (41
percent of the earths population) live in regions with water scarcity; this number is estimated to be 3.5
billion
by
2025.1
96.5 percent of the worlds water is found in seas and oceans, and the remainder is found as ice caps,
brackish water, and fresh water sources (e.g. lakes, rivers, and ground waters). To overcome water
shortage problems, methods such as water conservation and dam construction have been applied for
several years, but they are not enough against increasing water demand and decreasing fresh water
sources.2
Water is also very important for generating energy, and vice versa. The largest portion of U.S. electric

production is provided by thermoelectric power generation, where steam-driven turbine generators are
used to generate electricity. In 2000, thermoelectric power plants used 39 percent of all fresh water
sources in the United States.3 All these reasons make the production of drinking water a worldwide
issue.
Desalination
Since most of worlds water supply is found in oceans and seas, desalination is the process of removing
salts and minerals from either ocean or brackish water to make it safe for human consumption and use.
The most widely applied desalination processes are divided into two main categories, thermal distillation
processes
and
membrane
processes.
Desalination via thermal distillation methods, which separate liquid mixtures based on their boiling points,
mainly fall into three categories: multi-stage flash (MSF), multi-effect distillation (MED), and mechanical
vapor compression (MVC). Thermal distillation processes require the evaporation of water while leaving
the salt in a concentrated brine. Middle Eastern countries mainly use thermal-based desalination plants to
produce fresh water because of their easily accessible fossil fuel sources.2, 4
Membrane-based separations are the main choice of producing potable water in countries outside the
Middle East. More than 50 percent of the newly installed desalination plants have been using reverse
osmosis
(RO)
membrane
technology
(since
2001).2
Membrane
separations
A membrane is an interphase between two adjacent phases acting as a selective barrier, regulating the
transport of substances between the two compartments. It is a very thin film that allows passage of some
types of substances while preventing the passage of other substances, depending on their sizes.
Membranes used for separation technology gave rise to an interdisciplinary area including many fields of
science and engineering such as chemistry, chemical engineering, material science, process engineering,
environmental science, ecology, and economics.5, 6 Today, the membrane industry is impressively large.
The membrane separation technology market is quite diverse and ranges from medicine to the chemical
industry, and the most important markets are medical devices and water treatment. There was a $2 billion
sale
of
synthetic
membranes
worldwide
in
2003.6
Water
purification
membranes
Water treatment processes employ several types of membranes. They include microfiltration (MF),
ultrafiltration (UF), nanofiltration (NF) and reverse osmosis (RO) membranes. They are designed to
remove materials of increasing sizes. MF membranes have the largest pore size and typically reject large
particles and various microorganisms. UF membranes have smaller pores than MF membranes and,
therefore, in addition to large particles and microorganisms, they can reject bacteria and soluble
macromolecules such as proteins. RO membranes are effectively nonporous and therefore exclude
particles and even many low molar mass species such as salt ions, organic substances, etc.7 NF
membranes are relatively new and are sometimes called loose RO membranes. They are porous
membranes, but since the pores are ten of angstroms or less, they exhibit performance between that of
RO and UF membranes.8 Of these membranes, NF and RO membranes constitute the dominant
technology
for
desalination
of
water.9
2.1
Nanofiltration
Membranes
Membranes for nanofiltration (NF) are usually comprised of cellulose acetate or aromatic polyamides. NF
allows diffusion of organic compounds, and rejects some salts with low pressures being applied. NF itself

cannot purify seawater to drinking water standards, but it is a process that can be used to produce mildly
salty water, or as a water-softening technique.2, 4 When NF is coupled with RO, then it can be used to
turn
seawater
into
drinking
water.10
Nanofiltration membranes usually have negative charges (e.g., carboxylate groups, sulfonate groups,
etc.), and as a result, ion repulsion is a major factor in determining salt rejection. More highly charged
ions, such as sulfate, are more highly rejected than monovalent ions, such as chloride, by a negatively
charged nanofiltration membrane. In particular, NF membranes are used to remove divalent ions such as
calcium and magnesium, which are mainly responsible for water hardness. These membranes also
usually display good rejection of organic compounds with molecular weights above 200 to 500
grams.2,11,12
2.2
Reverse
osmosis
membranes
Osmosis is a natural process in which water molecules move across a semipermeable membrane from a
lower solute concentration area to the higher solute concentration area. Water flows until a chemical
potential equilibrium of water is established. When equilibrium is reached, the pressure difference
between the two sides of the membrane is equal to the osmotic pressure of the solution.12
Reverse osmosis (RO) is the process of forcing water from a region of high solute concentration through
a membrane to a region of low solute concentration by applying a pressure that is greater than the
osmotic pressure. As a result, separation of water from the solution occurs as pure water from the high
concentration side to the low concentration side. The RO process includes a feed water source, feed pretreatment, a high-pressure pump, RO membrane modules and post-treatment steps.
RO membranes are capable of rejecting monovalent ions such as sodium and chloride, which makes the
RO process a valuable method for desalination. Membranes used for RO processes have salt rejections
of more than 99 percent. RO membranes do not have distinct pores, but rather rely on free volume within
the
polymer
film.
RO membrane separations depend highly on the properties of the polymer film such as the chemical and
physical structure of the membrane material. Desired RO membranes should be resistant to chemical
substances and microbial organisms, stable over a long time both mechanically and structurally, and have
ideal separation properties such as high water flux, high salt rejection, chlorine, and fouling (clogging of
membrane
pores)
resistance.
Approximately one billion of six billion people in the world live in water-stressed areas, and RO membrane
technology is the leading desalination technology to overcome the problem of insufficient clean water and
estimated to continue its leadership in the near future.13 Scientists and engineers are extensively
investigating the development of the most efficient membrane desalination technology to produce the
cheapest
potable
water.
On the other hand, cells use membranes, though scientists do not try to further develop them, since they
were already designed in a perfect manner. Cellular membranes have a phospholipid structure with
embedded proteins. They control many different kinds of transportations of substances in and out of cells
(e.g. sugar, drugs, ions). They are so well designed that they know which substances are helpful or
harmful for the cell, and decide on the passage of substances based on that. Many researchers have tried
countless times for many years to produce an equally wonderful membrane technology for making clean
water. But cellular membranes, consisting of hundreds of functions in living organisms, do not form
spontaneously.

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