Engineers develop revolutionary nanotech water desalination membrane

The headline news in in desal research this week has been from UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

engineers develop revolutionary nanotech water desalination membrane

UCLA Engineering’s Eric Hoek holds nanoparticles and a piece of his new RO water desalination membrane. Credit: UCLA Engineering/Don Liebig

Researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science today announced they have developed a new reverse osmosis (RO) membrane that promises to reduce the cost of seawater desalination and wastewater reclamation.

Guess what? The way the UCLA engineers have done it has been to charge the membrane so as allow the water to pass through and repel salt and waste. Does this sound like something I’ve been talking for the last couple months? No?

The new membrane, developed by civil and environmental engineering assistant professor Eric Hoek and his research team, uses a uniquely cross-linked matrix of polymers and engineered nanoparticles designed to draw in water ions but repel nearly all contaminants. These new membranes are structured at the nanoscale to create molecular tunnels through which water flows more easily than contaminants.

Unlike the current class of commercial RO membranes, which simply filter water through a dense polymer film, Hoek’s membrane contains specially synthesized nanoparticles dispersed throughout the polymer — known as a nanocomposite material.

“The nanoparticles are designed to attract water and are highly porous, soaking up water like a sponge, while repelling dissolved salts and other impurities,” Hoek said. “The water-loving nanoparticles embedded in our membrane also repel organics and bacteria, which tend to clog up conventional membranes over time.”

Well, the only part of this that I could brag about having advocated –is the part about using charge to filter water through a carbon nanotube. It doesn’t look like the membrane described above quite follows on the work of the LLNL scientists in May and the work of University of Kentucky scientists last November that showed super fast flow through rates for water passing through carbon nanotubes.)

With these improvements, less energy is needed to pump water through the membranes. Because they repel particles that might ordinarily stick to the surface, the new membranes foul more slowly than conventional ones. The result is a water purification process that is just as effective as current methods but more energy efficient and potentially much less expensive. Initial tests suggest the new membranes have up to twice the productivity — or consume 50 percent less energy — reducing the total expense of desalinated water by as much as 25 percent.

Earlier this year, the LLNL researchers said that the flow rates they had achieved with carbon nanotubes caused them to expect that they could reduce desalination costs by 75% by allowing purified water to pass through the membranes at room temperture and pressure. Compare this to the UCLA researchers saying the savings realized by their membrane would be 25%. This sounds like they have reduced–but not eliminated — the need for energy intensive & cost expensive pumping & plunging water against the membrane.

Interestingly the UCLA researchers have already partnered with a company called NanoH2O to produce the membranes. However, they don’t expect to go into production for two years.

Hoek is working with NanoH2O, LLP, an early-stage partnership, to develop his patent-pending nanocomposite membrane technology into a new class of low-energy, fouling-resistant membranes for desalination and water reuse. He anticipates the new membranes will be commercially available within the next year or two.

So how do you get these membranes up to production. As I mentioned earlier this week one answer might be Nantero.

Nantero, Inc., a nanotechnology company using carbon nanotubes for the development of next-generation semiconductor devices, has resolved all of the major obstacles that had been preventing carbon nanotubes from being used in mass production in semiconductor fabs.

Semi conductors are not semi permiable membranes but likely a lot of the procedures for creating the one will map over onto the other.

Another place they might go to find a production procedure would be Northwestern. Northwestern University has developed a method for making carbon nanotubes in commercial quantities while solving a quality control problem.

This might be a place where a venture capitalist like Firelake Capital might bring parties like Nantero and NanoH2O into a working alliance. Or if the work is still too early — then a national lab might contribute funds and coordinate efforts at NanoH2O and, say, Northwestern.

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Explore posts in the same categories: membrane research, Water Desalination Research and Development

6 Comments on “Engineers develop revolutionary nanotech water desalination membrane”


  1. […] in RO in half in two years or so. I’ve mentioned Eric’s work in two previous posts: 1.) 2.) Eric’s accomplishment is about what the Australians want to do in seven years for their […]


  2. […] in cutting edge desalination related materials research. Presenters include Jason Holt, Rustum Roy, Erik Hoek […]

  3. drhari Says:

    i am interested to know more about nano membranes , please contactme at the earliest !


  4. […] not clear as to whether this is an improvement on the membrane designed by UCLA’s Eric Hoek announced two years ago. The chlorine tolerant membrane would cut step two out of the process. But Eric’s membrane […]


  5. […] not clear as to whether this is an improvement on the membrane designed by UCLA’s Eric Hoek announced two years ago. The chlorine tolerant membrane would cut step two out of the process. But Eric’s membrane […]


  6. […] in RO in half in two years or so. I’ve mentioned Eric’s work in two previous posts: 1.) 2.) Eric’s accomplishment is about what the Australians want to do in seven years for their […]


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