Aston University scientists are to explore a more sustainable method of separating contaminants from water.

The method will use exquisite molecular selectivity, which means that just a single chemical or molecular species will be able to pass through the membrane, allowing scientists to selectively remove a single contaminant from water.

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Source: Aston University

Dr Matt Derry

The World Health Organization estimates that microbiologically contaminated water is responsible for almost 500,000 deaths a year and current filtration technologies aren’t effective enough.

Research grant

The University has received a grant of £165,999 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to research the use of bioinspired membranes to selectively remove contaminants from water, while using minimal energy.
The membranes will be made from plastic but will have transmembrane proteins embedded within them, made possible thanks to new polymers developed by the University.

The transmembrane proteins enable the selective removal of specific contaminants using transport channels measuring approximately 4-10 nanometres - around one million times smaller than an ant.

The Aston University team led by Dr Matt Derry, lecturer in chemistry, will be developing bio-inspired membranes which selectively remove contaminants with minimal energy. 

Working with Dr Alan Goddard, reader in biochemistry at Aston University, the team’s design is based on solutions found in biological evolution and refinement which has occurred over millions of years.

Global socioeconomic issue

Dr Derry, who is based in the University’s College of Engineering and Physical Sciences. said: “Polluted water is a complex global socioeconomic issue that affects human and animal health, and greatly impacts industries such as agriculture and fishing, recreational activities and transport. 

“Current filtration technologies are ineffective and their manufacture often requires complex and expensive multi-step processes with high associated energy costs.

“We are going to use advanced polymer synthesis to develop new bespoke polymers which will both extract transmembrane proteins and immobilise them within artificial separation membranes.

“This will create water purification membranes which remove impurities with greater selectivity and specificity.”

Membrane science

The new membrane technology developed in this project will advance and evolve membrane science. The platform materials and approaches used can be applied to other membrane filtration and water purification applications such as selective phosphate removal from agricultural wastewater.

Dr Derry added: “We are hoping that the new membranes will lead to high-performance devices that can contribute to a circular economy. 

“The need for such new systems is recognised by the UN with Sustainable Development Goal six on clean water and sanitation.”

The research will begin in April 2024 and will end in May 2026.