Scientists claim plant cell membrane mimic shrinks desalination costs

Singapore researchers claim to have produced a biomimetic membrane with the potential to reduce water purification costs by up to 30%.

The National University of Singapore Environmental Research Institute (NERI) scientists - led by Professor Tong Yen Wah, has designed and made a new water purification and treatment system that incorporates aquaporins - cell membrane proteins that conduct high volumes of water in and out of cells at very low pressures while blocking ions and other solutes.

The NERI team has succeeded in placing aquaporin proteins onto polymer membranes to act as channels that allow only water to go through very quickly while consuming little energy energy.

“The biomimetic membrane is constructed to mimic the layers of cells on the roots of mangrove trees by embedding nano-sized aquaporin-vesicles onto a stable and functional ultrafiltration substrate membrane using an innovative yet simple and easy-to-implement surface imprinting technology,” Tong explained.

Aquaporins in mangrove plants which survive in salt water, filter 90-95% of the salt at their roots. In another example of aquaporin performance, the human kidney is able to purify up to 150 litres of water daily.

Unlike conventional biomimetic membranes which tend to be quite fragile, the novel membrane has high mechanical strength and stability making it suitable for industrial applications in water treatment and desalination the NERI team has claimed.

The team said it was in discussions with a US-based company to develop a pilot-scale module to test the feasibility of the membranes in the next two year