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3D Printing Membranes Could Change Water Treatment As We Know It

Researchers took stock of 3D printing resources to see how membranes could be churned out with a printer

by Meredith Rutland Bauer
Jan 13 2017, 1:05pm

Photo: Jeffrey Montes

3D printing has come a long way in the past few years. Printers that once could only produce thick plastic can now churn out flexible material, metal, and now even semi-permeable membranes.

Researchers at the University of Bath assessed 3D printers' ability to work with membranes to evaluate the potential to 3D print membranes in the future, according to a study published online this week in the Journal of Membrane Science.

Membranes are useful in the water treatment industry for reverse osmosis treatment used in desalination and recycled water purification, among other uses. But creating one is particularly difficult, and they can usually only be built as a hollow tube or a flat membrane because of the setup of current manufacturing methods. 3D printing could change all of that.

"Although 3D printing technology is not quite well enough developed to yet produce large scale membranes that will be cost competitive with existing products, this work does signal what the future possibilities are with 3D printing," said Darrell Patterson, director of the Centre for Advanced Separations Engineering at the University of Bath, in a release.

Read more: Self-Assembling Nanoparticles Offer Super-Efficient, Portable Water Desalination

This is the first time the properties of various 3D printing techniques have been assessed and compared to the tools needed to create membranes, according to a University of Bath release.

Patterson said complex porous structures, membranes that could be adapted to odd-shaped surfaces and "membranes based on nature" would all be possible with 3D printing. At least, it could be one day.

Membranes could also be used to remove chemicals from the air prior to it leaving a manufacturing area and chemicals from wastewater prior to the water leaving a facility—and are a lower-energy, lower-cost option to current technologies, the study stated.

And given concerns about water security, having a way to mass-produce reverse osmosis membranes for desalination and recycled water purification treatments is no small achievement. While this study only looks at what could be possible—and didn't actually create huge membranes with 3D printers—we may have to wait a while.

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