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Bio-Inspired Membranes, A Sustainable Approach to Water Pollution

Scientists at Aston University will investigate a more environmentally friendly way of extracting impurities from water. Using this technique's exceptional molecular selectivity, a single pollutant can be extracted from water samples.

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According to estimates from the World Health Organization, about 500,000 people die each year as a result of microbiologically polluted water, and present filtering methods are insufficiently efficient.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has awarded the University a £165,999 grant to investigate the application of bioinspired membranes for the selective and energy-efficient removal of impurities from water. The membranes will be composed of plastic, but they will include transmembrane proteins incorporated in them since the University produced new polymers.

Transmembrane proteins allow some pollutants to be removed selectively by the use of transport channels that are between 4 and 10 nanometers in size, or about a million times smaller than an ant.

Aston University researchers, under the direction of chemistry lecturer Dr. Matt Derry, are creating bioinspired membranes that remove pollutants selectively and energy-efficiently.

The team’s concept, developed in collaboration with Dr. Alan Goddard, an Aston University biochemistry reader, is based on solutions discovered in biological evolution and refinement that have taken place over millions of years.

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 immobilize them within artificial separation membranes. This will create water purification membranes which remove impurities with greater selectivity and specificity.

Dr. Matt Derry, Lecturer, Aston University

This project’s innovative membrane technology will progress and enhance membrane research. Other membrane filtration and water purification applications, such as the selective removal of phosphate from agricultural wastewater, could be implemented using the same platform materials and methodologies.

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 recognized by the UN with Sustainable Development Goal six on clean water and sanitation.

The study is scheduled to start in April 2024 and conclude in May 2026.

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