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University of Arkansas Researchers Join National Center to Advance Development of Membranes for Water Treatment

Participation made possible by combination of NSF and industry funds.

by University of Arkansas
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Ranil Wickramasinghe's research team focuses on membrane separations, including water treatment, wastewater recovery and reuse.Photo courtesy of the University of ArkansasFAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – University of Arkansas engineering researchers will join the Membrane, Science, Engineering and Technology Center, a multi-campus collaboration supported by the of the National Science Foundation. The center is focused on developing materials for energy production, water treatment, pharmaceutical purification and chemical processing.

The university received a total of $900,000 from NSF and industry partners to join the center, which includes researchers at the University of Colorado and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Ranil Wickramasinghe, professor of chemical engineering at the U of A, will focus on membrane separations, which include water treatment, wastewater recovery and reuse, and bioseparations for the manufacture of biopharmaceuticals. The center’s expertise in membrane separations will enhance its research mission and emphasis on industry participation.

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“We are excited and proud to be an active research partner in the Membrane Science, Engineering and Technology Center,” Wickramasinghe said. “Our research focus is imperative, not only to the goals of the center, but to a broader community, especially as water becomes a more precious resource.”

Wickramasinghe and the U of A researchers are developing advanced membranes, which are filters, with tiny pores, that remove pollutants and minerals from drinking water. These membranes are environmentally benign and modular, meaning they can be scaled up easily, Wickramasinghe said. But contaminant species, the agents that treatment facilities are trying to remove from water, tend to deposit on the surface of the membranes and clog them, leading to inferior performance.

Wickramasinghe has developed two approaches to prevent this fouling. One method is to induce mixing on the surface of the membrane to keep the particles moving around so that they don’t settle and block the membrane’s pores. Another approach is to modify the surface of the membrane with chemicals, which can repel the contaminants.

The funding includes $300,000 over five years from the NSF, as part of its nationwide Industry and University Cooperative Research Program, and a total of $600,000 over three years from four industry partners – Garver USA, an engineering firm; Tyson Foods; Southwestern Energy; and the Arkansas Bait and Ornamental Fishgrowers Association. The U of A researchers have already formed partnerships with these organizations.

The University of Arkansas participates in two other NSF-sponsored Industry and University Cooperative Research Programs: the GRid-connected Advanced Power Electronics Systems and the Center for Excellence in Logistics and Distribution.

Wickramasinghe holds the Ross E. Martin Chair in Emerging Technologies in Chemical Engineering.