UT researcher Wiebe de Vos has been awarded a European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant totalling €2 million to develop a new membrane with alternating positively and negatively charged domains. This enables the membrane to filter micro-pollutants from water while allowing salt ions and other important minerals to pass through.
Micro-pollutants in our surface water and drinking water sources are a growing problem. The minute residues of drugs and other harmful substances are hazardous to human beings and to the environment. Current methods of filtering out micro-pollutants from water are energy-intensive and often remove more than is wanted, making it necessary to re-add the essential minerals to the water afterwards."
The membrane developed by De Vos should remedy that issue. His project MOSAIC (Building charge-MOSAIC nanofiltration membranes for removing micro-pollutants from surface and drinking water) involves him developing a membrane consisting alternately of positively and negatively charged surfaces. This mosaic pattern should allow salts – which also consist of positively and negatively charged particles – to pass through far more readily, while also removing more than 99 per cent of micro-pollutants. An additional complication is that the domains need to be extremely small, at the nanoscale, to function properly.
The idea is not entirely new: 90 years ago, Austrian chemist Karl Söllner came up with the concept of mosaic membranes. However, no one since has been able to produce them effectively. “Several researchers have managed to make mosaic membranes on a small scale, but they were always expensive, were not suitable for large-scale production or had domains that were too large to allow effective salt permeation," says De Vos.
While De Vos will focus on creating a new method for making the membranes, his work will also include the simultaneous development of new processes for effectively purifying drinking water and wastewater using the new membranes. "In membrane technology, we often develop new membranes which are then left on the shelf. That is something we intend to avoid,” De Vos says. Part of the project involves modelling the membranes to gain a better understanding of how they function. A pilot project is envisaged as a means not just of testing but also as a step toward rolling out to a real application.
Professor Wiebe de Vos is a full professor in the Membrane Science and Technology cluster (TNW/MESA+). ERC Consolidator Grants are available under Horizon Europe, the EU's key funding programme for research and innovation. The European Research Council awards Consolidator Grants to leading researchers. De Vos previously received the ERC Starting Grant in 2016.