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Bio-inspired gas-entrapping membranes (GEMs) derived from common water-wet materials for green desalination

Das, Ratul, Arunachalam, Sankara, Ahmad, Zain, Manalastas, Edelberto, Mishra, Himanshu
Journal of membrane science 2019 v.588 pp. 117185
Collembola, Halobates, air, artificial membranes, biomimetics, desalination, distillation, hairs, heat, insect cuticle, perfluorocarbons, polymethylmethacrylate, renewable energy sources, silica, sodium chloride, vapors, water supply
Widespread stress on global water supplies compels the need for low-cost and sustainable desalination processes. In this regard, desalination through membrane distillation (MD) can harness waste-grade heat or renewable energy. So far, the membranes for MD have been exclusively derived from intrinsically water-repellant materials - mostly perfluorocarbons. However, perfluorocarbons are limiting in terms of operational conditions, and they also introduce economic and environmental concerns. The development of perfluorocarbon-free MD membranes would likely address those challenges. Here, we report on the proof-of-concept for biomimetic gas-entrapping membranes (GEMs) for MD derived from silica and poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) that are water-wet materials. We drew inspiration for our GEM design from the cuticles of springtails and hairs of Halobates germanus, both of which exhibit mushroom-shaped (or reentrant) features. Accordingly, our GEMs comprise arrays of microscale cylindrical pores with reentrant inlets and outlets that can robustly entrap air on submersion in water. Our PMMA-GEMs yielded a vapor flux of J≈ 1 L-m−2-h−1 while separating a solution of ∼0.6 M NaCl at 333 K from deionized water at 288 K under a cross-flow configuration. To our knowledge, this is the first-ever demonstration of MD membranes derived from intrinsically water-wet materials, and these findings suggest that the rational design of membranes towards greener and cheaper desalination processes is possible.