Monitoring and characterization of biofouling development in a membrane fouling simulator (MFS) fed with natural seawater

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Reverse osmosis (RO) desalination plants enable the production of high-quality freshwater from seawater, explaining the increasing global use of this technology. However, a major operational challenge for RO is biofouling, caused by excessive biomass accumulation. Membrane fouling simulators (MFSs), downsized membrane systems, were demonstrated to be suitable for biofouling studies using tap water. There is a need to investigate biofouling using natural seawater.

The seawater MFS studies involved (i) an exploratory study to evaluate the MFS setup, (ii) long-term operation without feed water nutrient dosage, (iii) impact of nutrient concentration, and (iv) a comparison of biofouling development with freshwater.

MFSs were operated parallel at constant feed flow (0.2 m/s), with feed spacer and RO membrane, at varying biodegradable organic nutrient concentrations (0, 50, and 200 µg C/L). The relative pressure drop (RPD) was monitored over time, and biofilm development was characterized through the MFS window applying optical coherence tomography (OCT).

Results demonstrated for seawater that (i) the developed setup had a reliable operation and provided reproducible data, (ii) biofouling development presented a minimal effect when nutrient concentration was quadrupled, (iii) there was no correlation between the nutrient concentration and growth rate for seawater experiments, suggesting biofilm development under conditions close to the maximum growth rate. Compared to tap water at the same nutrient concentrations, seawater showed much faster biofilm development, pressure drop increase, and strongly different biofilm morphology.

This research provides new insights, new research directions and underlines the importance of doing MFS research with natural seawater.

Franco Clavijo, N. (2022). Monitoring and characterization of biofouling development in a membrane fouling simulator (MFS) fed with natural seawater. KAUST Research Repository.


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