MIT develops filters for wastewater treatment, more

Membranes that filter larger materials from others are key to wastewater treatment and a variety of other processes. Yet the membranes currently on the market are often easily clogged.

Enter MIT Associate Professor Anne Mayes, who decided that the field was ripe for fresh ideas and has developed a way to not only make better filtration membranes, but also give those membranes additional applications. For example, her team is modifying the membranes to encourage the attachment of living cells-a key goal of tissue engineering. Professor Mayes is in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

To date, the manufacture of filtration membranes has been something of a "black art," principally using a process known as "immersion precipitation." A concentrated polymer solution is spread on a moving belt, skimmed to a thin and level coating, then immersed in a water-containing bath. There the polymer precipitates out of solution, forming a membrane with a suprisingly ideal structure for filtration: small surface pores, with larger channels in the bulk membrane structure.

Unfortunately, this process leaves a very small number of pores on the surface, and the materials that are sufficiently strong for filtering applications are hydrophobic, or water-repelling. Oil- or protein-containing solutions passed through such filters tend to clog or foul them.

In the wastewater treatment industry, cleaning and replacement costs associated with fouling cost some 47 percent of the total process costs. Granted, further treatments can lead to a fouling-resistant surface, but these extra fabrication steps drive up costs and don't always work well, since they treat only the outer surface of the membrane. The inner surfaces of the membrane channels remain foulant attractors.

Professor Mayes' novel idea was to mix into the bulk membrane polymer solution a "comb" polymer composed of a hydrophobic backbone

Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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