Nanoporous materials, with pore sizes less than one nanometer, have been incorporated as filler materials into state-of-the-art polyamide-based thin-film composite membranes to create thin-film nanocomposite (TFN) membranes for reverse osmosis (RO) desalination. However, these TFN membranes have inconsistent changes in desalination performance as a result of filler incorporation. The nano-sized filler’s transport role for enhancing water permeability is unknown: specifically, there is debate around the individual transport contributions of the polymer, nanoporous particle, and polymer/particle interface. Limited studies exist on the pressure-driven water transport mechanism through nanoporous single-crystal nanoparticles. An understanding of the nanoporous particles water transport role in TFN membranes will provide a better physical insight on the improvement of desalination membranes.
This dissertation investigates water permeation through single-crystal molecular sieve zeolite A particles in TFN membranes in four steps. First, the meta-analysis of nanoporous materials (e.g., zeolites, MOFs, and graphene-based materials) in TFN membranes demonstrated non-uniform water-salt permselectivity performance changes with nanoporous fillers. Second, a systematic study was performed investigating different sizes of non-porous (pore-closed) and nanoporous (pore-opened) zeolite particles incorporated into conventionally polymerized TFN membranes; however, the challenges of particle aggregation, non-uniform particle dispersion, and possible particle leaching from the membranes limit analysis. Third, to limit aggregation and improve dispersion on the membrane, a TFN-model membrane synthesis recipe was developed that immobilized the nanoparticles onto the support membranes surface before the polymerization reaction. Fourth, to quantify the possible water transport pathways in these membranes, two different resistance models were employed.
The experimental results show that both TFN and TFN-model membranes with pore-opened particles have higher water permeance compared to those with pore-closed particles. Further analysis using the resistance in parallel and hybrid models yields that water permeability through the zeolite pores is smaller than that of the particle/polymer interface and higher than the water permeability of the pure polymer. Thus, nanoporous particles increase water permeability in TFN membranes primarily through increased water transport at particle/polymer interface. Because solute rejection is not significantly altered in our TFN and TFN-model systems, the results reveal that local changes in the polymer region at the polymer/particle interface yield high water permeability.