Nanofiltration membranes can lead to significant energy savings


My name is Michiel Nijboer, and when I’m not working on my PhD, on atomic layer deposition on ceramic membranes, I can be found either out in nature or at live motorsports events, in each case with my trusty camera in hand.

Typically, my research requires looking at our world on a much, much smaller scale than my camera would be capable of. For my master’s thesis in Chemical Engineering at TU Eindhoven, I researched the controlled deposition of silica on collagen fibrils to make them stronger so they can be used as biocompatible scaffolds.

In my PhD, the deposition theme continues, but now, with the SUSSIC project, in a different direction. The nice thing about this work is that it combines devilishly interesting intellectual challenges with something that is socially useful—or rather, that will be useful if everything goes as planned.

Nano-level technology, big gains

The overall challenge that the project aims to tackle is as follows. At the moment, large industrial-process streams contain solvents or a mix of water and solvents or other organic material. Treating them with conventional separation techniques like distillation takes a lot of energy. It’s been shown that the use of nanofiltration membranes can, in theory, lead to significant energy savings.

One problem, though, is that some processes have high demands of the membranes. For example, high temperatures or highly abrasive conditions are hampering the commercial, that is to say industrial-scale, application of the technology in such processes. Enter Silicon Carbide (SiC): it is almost as hard as diamond, making it suitable for application in challenging conditions. Deposition of SiC using ALD makes it possible to control pore sizes at the nanometer and even the subnanometer level, and holds out the promise of enabling production of a range of SiC NF membranes with molecular-weight cut-off values of anywhere from 200 to 1,000 Da.

The key here, is depositing successive layers of chemical precursors onto a surface to build ultra-thin layers in a controlled manner. That would mean that this family of membranes could help make the aforementioned energy savings (up to 50%) a reality in chemically- and thermally challenging conditions, thus contributing to a more circular economy and a more sustainable environment. As a big fan of nature, I find that an enticing prospect.

The scientific and the social payoff

Ceramics and membranes have been tangentially related to my research but not at the heart of it. And what’s great about the contribution I hope to make to the project is that a technique that is at the heart of my research could be used to overcome a major stumbling block to commercial feasibility. But more than that, reading about the project and the possibilities that ceramic membranes offer has made clear just how many potential applications they have. That’s a big plus—but so is the prospect of working with enthusiastic and dedicated colleagues who are keen to solve today’s problems with new technological solutions.

ISPT is playing a key role in the SUSSIC project (and others) by facilitating the industrial application of promising technologies. I’m so pleased to have ISPTers on my user committee, and I look forward to working with them in the coming years.