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Comparison of fouling propensity between reverse osmosis, forward osmosis, and membrane distillation

Tow, Emily W., Warsinger, David M., Trueworthy, Ali M., Swaminathan, Jaichander, Thiel, Gregory P., Zubair, Syed M., Myerson, Allan S., Lienhard V, John H.
Journal of membrane science 2018 v.556 pp. 352-364
alginates, artificial membranes, calcium sulfate, desalination, distillation, fouling, hydrodynamics, models, reverse osmosis, temperature
Resistance to fouling is often cited as an advantage of emerging desalination technologies such as forward osmosis and membrane distillation over the widely-used reverse osmosis process. However, the nature and magnitude of differences in fouling behavior between these three processes are not well characterized. This study directly compares the fouling and scaling behavior of reverse osmosis (RO), forward osmosis (FO), and direct contact membrane distillation (MD) in the same membrane module under identical hydrodynamic conditions (flux and cross-flow velocity). Fouling experiments were conducted using calcium sulfate as a model inorganic foulant and alginate as a model organic foulant. Although all three processes tolerated some degree of feed supersaturation for 36 h without inorganic fouling (scaling), FO exhibited the greatest scaling resistance, withstanding a feed of 33± 2 mM CaSO4 (approximately twice saturation) without significant flux decline. Scaling occurred at similar concentrations at the membrane between MD and RO; however, while MD tolerated a more concentrated bulk feed due to reduced concentration polarization, flux decline after fouling was considerably more severe in MD. In contrast, MD tolerated organic fouling much better than FO or RO: despite accumulating a similar quantity of alginate gel over 18 h of operation, flux declined only 14% in MD versus 46–47% in RO and FO. These results are explained with respect to differences in temperature, membrane materials, and transport mechanisms between the three processes. Although FO and MD each exhibited superior resistance to one type of foulant, neither process outperformed RO in resistance to both organic and inorganic fouling. These findings inform a more nuanced approach to process selection for the treatment of complex water sources.