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Water Res. 2004 Dec;38(20):4511-23.

Identification and understanding of fouling in low-pressure membrane (MF/UF) filtration by natural organic matter (NOM).

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Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 1111 Eng. Dr. ECOT 441, Campus Box 428, Boulder, CO 80309, USA.


An understanding of natural organic matter (NOM) as a membrane foulant and the behavior of NOM components in low-pressure membrane fouling are needed to provide a basis for appropriate selection and operation of membrane technology for drinking water treatment. Fouling by NOM was investigated by employing several innovative chemical and morphological analyses. Source (feed) waters with a high hydrophilic (HPI) fraction content of NOM resulted in significant flux decline. Macromolecules of a relatively hydrophilic character (e.g. polysaccharides) were effectively rejected by low-pressure membranes, suggesting that macromolecular compounds and/or colloidal organic matter in the hydrophilic NOM fraction may be a problematic foulant of low-pressure membranes. Moreover, the significant organic fouling that is contributed by polysaccharides and/or proteins in macromolecular and/or colloidal forms depends on molecular shape (structure) as well as size (i.e. molecular weight). More significant flux decline was observed in microfiltration (MF) compared to ultrafiltration (UF) membrane filtration. MF membrane fouling may be caused by pore blockage associated with large (macromolecular) hydrophilic molecules and/or organic colloids. In the case of UF membranes, the flux decline may be caused by sequential or simultaneous processes of surface (gel layer) coverage during filtration. Morphological analyses support the notion that membrane roughness may be considered as a more important factor in membrane fouling by controlling interaction between molecules and the membrane surface, compared to the hydrophobic/hydrophilic character of membranes. Membrane fouling mechanisms are not only a function of membrane type (MF versus UF) but also depend on source (feed) water characteristics.

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