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Villanova Researchers Receive Clean Water Grant from National Science Foundation

VILLANOVA, Pa. - In a world of increasing demand on a limited water supply, technology that can purify water more efficiently could benefit millions of people. Villanova researchers from the College of Engineering, in partnership with a researcher from Drexel University, received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a technology that could greatly improve water and wastewater treatment facilities’ ability to remove contaminants from water. These facilities include domestic water and wastewater treatment plants, and industries that treat their own wastewater on-site.

Membrane separation systems are one of the most promising methods of purifying water that contains high salt content (such as brackish or salt water in desalination plants), and for reusing industrial and domestic wastewater. Unfortunately the single greatest obstacle to implementation of membrane systems is fouling of the membranes. That is, the material that is filtered can quickly clog the membrane, and cleaning or replacing the membranes is expensive and time consuming. When the systems are not cleaned or replaced as often as needed, more energy is needed for pumping and the quality of product water can suffer. If the problem of membrane fouling can be solved, it could reduce operational costs, increase the number and type of locations that could use this technology, and provide more clean water to the world. The Villanova research team has developed a self-cleaning membrane technology that has great promise for mitigating membrane fouling.

The NSF’s Chemical and Biological Separations program awarded $246,942 to support work by Dr. Brian Chaplin and Dr. Metin Duran at Villanova University and $145,000 to support work by Dr. Yossef Elabd at Drexel University to develop and test reactive electrochemical membranes (REMs) for water treatment applications. The novel REM acts to both filter and destroy contaminants on its surface. These self-cleaning properties will allow the REM to have a long operational life without membrane fouling, and have the potential to greatly enhance the potential applications of membrane technologies. Work will focus on understanding the mechanisms of operation of the REMs at the fundamental level by using advanced characterization techniques. This work seeks to lay the groundwork for a new generation of reactive electrode materials that will have utility in a vast number of applications.

The development of a successful REM would be a monumental step in overcoming the primary downfall of membrane separation systems (Membrane Fouling).  The work proposed here has the potential to lay the groundwork for the development of REMs that can operate with minimal fouling which will result in more efficient aqueous separations, and reduce the frequency of off-line cleaning. Such an accomplishment would radically change the fields of Environmental and Chemical Engineering, and has broad applications in water treatment and other fields. Specifically, the proposed research is expected to contribute significantly to two main areas in water treatment: 1) membrane filtration and 2) water disinfection.

About Villanova University: Since 1842, Villanova University’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition has been the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others.  There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University's five colleges – the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the College of Nursing and the Villanova University School of Law. As students grow intellectually, Villanova prepares them to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them.