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Material design and synthesis to large scale membrane manufacture

A researcher exchange supported by the SynHiSel programme lets researcher Chunchun Ye go from material design and synthesis to larger-scale manufacture of membranes

45 cm width of yellow membrane emerging from the roll to roll machine
45 cm width of yellow membrane emerging from the roll to roll machine
cylindrical roll of a brown membrane

Taking materials through to membranes which have potential for use in industrial applications is a key challenge in membranes research. Equipment and expertise for design and synthesis of materials with membrane potential together with larger-scale membrane manufacture and separation measurement facilities is difficult to find in a single group.  

Chunchun Ye is a researcher on the SynHiSel programme grant. Chunchun tells us how a recent exchange where she was able to work both in Edinburgh, where she’s employed, and in Queen Mary University London helps to bridge this gap. 

My one-year SynHiSel collaboration aimed to develop low-cost high-performance polymer membranes targeted for large-scale organic solvent nanofiltration (OSN) systems. Initial work took place in Edinburgh, where I was based. As part of Neil McKeown’s group, I focused on systematic design and synthesis of multifunctional Polymers of Intrinsic Microporosity (PIMs). 

The researcher Exchange- part of the SynHiSel programme Grant collaboration meant I was then able to spend time down in Andrew Livingston’s lab at Queen Mary University London. Here I could delve into large-scale membrane processing technology, in particular roll-to roll technique to understand how my multifunctional PIMs could be manufactured at a larger scale. I was considering specific functional groups to enhance the selectivity of target solutes and the permeance of organic solvents in my PIMs materials. But for membrane manufacturing and separation processes, factors such as solution processability; chemical, mechanical, thermal stabilities; and the solvent resistance of polymers become essential considerations too. 

Spending time in the Queen Mary labs gave me insights into the processing and transport models of various membrane modules too, for example flat sheet modules or spiral-wound modules as well as practical skills in assembling the membranes into dead-end cells and crossflow rigs for testing. 

I brought back the insight the exchange gave me to Edinburgh- we’ve talked about feasibility of large-scale material production and developed plans, but also aimed to put larger scale synthesis experiments into practice. We’ve also worked of making the collaboration much more sustainable in the long term and have worked out an arrangement for where I can spend half of my time employed in Edinburgh and half employed in Queen Mary University which is quite an innovative approach for working across universities and will give me excellent and broad expertise and skills looking ahead to my academic career. 

The exchanges were funded by the EPSRC SynHiSel Programme Grant EP/V047078/1, by the Royal Society, and by RSC Researcher Collaborations Grants.

Images show fabrication of a Polybenzimidazole membrane with a width of 0.45m and a length of 10m by roll-to-roll phase inversion machine.

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