Better Filtration Systems: Using Polymer Technology for Innovative Water Membranes

Materials Studio

polymer technology water membrane
Concerns about our global water supply are driving efforts to transform wastewater into safe, drinkable liquid. What advances in polymer technology have allowed companies to make this a viable goal?
Image source: Flickr CC user Eric Shea

“Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink” may be a common misquote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but the sentiment is familiar to many people in today’s modern world. Growing urban populations and rapid industrialization are taxing our global water resources, fueling concerns about the longevity of our drinking reservoirs. In fact, estimates say that we need at least 30% more water by 2030 to keep pace with increasing demand.1

The necessity has not gone unnoticed, however. Governments have been passing or amending laws to protect natural waterways from harmful chemicals, as many of them also serve as sources of drinking water. Unfortunately, keeping rivers and streams free of pollution isn’t enough. In addition to overpopulation, changing climates have led to the overall dwindling of our natural water supplies—something to which residents of the drought-stricken U.S. West Coast can attest. As a result, we must change how we think about water. Not only must we focus on ways to conserve it, we must also consider how to recycle and reuse it.

Polymer Technology Can Aid the Quest to Increase Our Global Water Supply

More often than not, wastewater is viewed as a byproduct, rather than a resource. Once water is contaminated with sewage, we want nothing to do with it, right? The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Sewage water is already being recycled today. Your local farm, state park, or golf course may in fact be irrigated by recycled sewage water. What’s to stop us from further purifying that water to make it drinkable?

The idea isn’t anything new. Cities in Texas are already recycling wastewater for drinking purposes. San Diego recently announced plans to produce 33% of its water supply from recycled sewage by 2035. The plan is ambitious when you consider the fact that none of its water supplies currently come from recycled wastewater at all. The United States isn’t alone in its intentions. Countries around the world, from Australia to the Middle East, are ramping up their wastewater recycling efforts.2

While the idea of drinking recycled sewage may make people recoil, recent advances in polymer technology have made the possibility a safe, tasty reality. Obviously, the purification process to make wastewater safe to drink will be more stringent than that required to produce water used for irrigation systems. More membrane filters need to be used during the process. Extra steps have to be added to ensure that all traces of chemicals, bacteria, and other contaminants are removed. By incorporating innovative polymeric membranes into treatment systems, these filtration steps can yield high-quality water that is safe to drink.

How Polymer Technology Can Create Innovative Filtration Membranes

Recycling wastewater and transforming it into drinkable liquid is simply a matter of removing the contaminants. Through a series of purification stages, membrane filtration removes everything from large debris to microscopic viruses. The secret lies with the membranes themselves. Thanks to advances in polymer technology, these membranes have become durable enough to withstand the process while remaining as thin as a human strand of hair. But by varying pore size, they can remove contaminants before the crucial final stages of reverse osmosis and UV exposure that make what began as sewage water suitable for human consumption.3

Developing polymeric membranes for use in wastewater recycling facilities is crucial for supporting our efforts to boost global supplies. The key lies with creating polymers with the properties required to remove contaminants efficiently and effectively. After all, it’s the fear of repugnant flavor and unsafe qualities that fuels people’s resistance toward the so-called “toilet to tap” movement. But as long as researchers design polymers with advantageous qualities, those anxieties can easily be assuaged. For example, do the polymers have strong binding affinity to common chemical contaminants? Can their crosslinked chains trap bacteria and viruses, thereby eliminating health risks? Are they durable enough to handle cleaning processes? After all, treating wastewater is subject to fluctuations not found in other purification systems. Factors like flow, temperature, and feed can affect efficacy, and any variation must be minimized, in order the guarantee that a safe, drinkable product can be obtained.

BIOVIA Materials Studio is a complete modeling and simulation environment that allows scientists to visualize the molecular structure of a new material and predict its physical properties and behavior. As a result, researchers can design better-performing materials—including the polymers used in filtration membranes. Its tools support innovations in polymer technology by boosting efficiency through pre-assay screening via molecular modeling, reducing costs by allowing researchers to select promising materials earlier during the R&D process, and enabling collaboration across time zones and geographical boundaries. Is your organization interested in enhancing its efforts to develop new, advantageous polymers and related materials? Please contact us today to learn more.

  1. “The State of Water in 2015,” January 1, 2016, http://www.watertechonline.com/the-state-of-water/
  2. “How Dow Chemicals Is Turning Sewage Into a Refreshing Drink,” December 3, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2015-12-03/how-dow-chemical-is-turning-sewage-into-a-refreshing-drink
  3. “Membrane Filtration for Wastewater Reuse Current,” November 1, 2010, http://www.waterworld.com/articles/wwi/print/volume-25/issue-5/regional-spotlight/north-american-caribbean/membrane-filtration-for-wastewater-reuse-current.html

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