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NSF Funds Schiffman’s “Potentially Transformative” Research to Confine Biofouling into Sacrificial Areas of Membranes Used for Water Purification

Jessica Schiffman

Jessica Schiffman

Assistant Professor Jessica Schiffman, a faculty member in the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is the sole Principal Investigator for a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to test a “potentially transformative concept,” as NSF reviewers have stated, that “if successful, would provide a new approach for limiting biofouling of water-treatment membrane materials, which is a significant and ubiquitous problem.”

The title of Schiffman’s NSF-funded project is “EAGER: Confining biofouling using sticky stripes” and is being funded by the NSF’s Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems (CBET) Division. See NSF website.

Her work has the potential for a very big payoff. “It proposes a radically different approach to controlling biofouling on ultrafiltration membranes than what is currently employed,” writes Schiffman. “The research engages in an interdisciplinary approach to biofouling that uniquely and creatively brings polymer science and nano-engineering techniques to chemical engineering and microbiology.”

Ultrafiltration membranes, as Schiffman explains in her proposal abstract, are the state of the art membranes used for water treatment.

“With time, however, bacteria colonize on the surface of the ultrafiltration membranes in a process known as biofouling,” observes Schiffman. Biofouling decreases the transport of liquids across the membrane, requires expensive and time-consuming methods to clean the membrane, ultimately increases the costs and energy consumption of the water purification process, and shortens the lifetime of the membrane.

Schiffman adds that current strategies to prevent biofouling include the use of designer polymers or biocides that may leach out of the membrane. So far, these existing strategies lead to membranes that are expensive and produce decreased flux performance.

“This project explores the synthesis of a novel membrane,” explains Schiffman, “which features an ultrathin upper layer of hydrophilic polymer that will increase the flux of water across the membrane but applied in such a way that the hydrophilic polymer does not block the pores of the membrane.”

Schiffman adds that, “Secondly, antifouling stripes will localize fouling and antimicrobial properties to certain sacrificial regions of the membrane.”

In her new NSF project, Schiffman proposes to focus on the most critical concern of her novel approach: permanently anchoring the sticky antibacterial stripes to the slippery ultrafiltration membranes, an innovation that would shift the whole paradigm for controlling biofouling. Schiffman’s NSF research will perfect this new type of antifouling membranes by irreversibly fixing her antibacterial stripes to them, thus trapping and isolating persistent biofouling in sacrificial areas that cannot intrude on or disrupt the water-purification process. During her one-year NSF project, Schiffman will demonstrate that her antifouling stripes adhere persistently to the ultrathin hydrophilic layer, thereby demonstrating and verifying her groundbreaking concept.

As Schiffman says, “Thus, the goal of this proposal is to demonstrate that stripes which could control biofouling can be robustly and irreversibly adhered to slippery membranes.”

Schiffman concludes that “Our transformative ultrafiltration membranes will provide a critical translation between the use of geometry, structure, and commercial chemistries on controlling biofouling.” (March 2017)