The University of Massachusetts Amherst


Since the 1960s, non-solvent induced phase separation has been used to manufacture polymer membranes, which are essential in sustainable separation processes for filtering dirty water and wastewater. Unfortunately, the manufacturing process for these membranes generates more than fifty billion liters of toxic, solvent-contaminated wastewater annually. Now the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded UMass Amherst Chemical Engineering Professor Jessica Schiffman a $386,034 grant to produce polymer that for the first time is sustainable, environmentally friendly, and free from toxic solvents. See NSF abstract.

The NSF grant for Schiffman’s research is one of only two national Synergy Track awards issued from its “Boosting Research Ideas for Transformative and Equitable Advances in Engineering” (BRITE) program. The BRITE Synergy Track is intended to support “synthesis proposals borne out of a disaggregated and accumulated body of prior research outcomes that remain unstudied and unprobed to forge or conceptualize a novel direction, methodology, paradigm, or outcome that is more than the sum of the parts.”

Schiffman, the Gary R. Lapidus Professor at UMass Amherst, will be undertaking her BRITE project, titled “Chemically Resilient, Fouling Resistant Separation Membranes Manufactured Using Aqueous Phase Inversion,” in January of 2023. Her membranes will feature a new chemistry that will enable an all-aqueous manufacturing process that does not use toxic solvents. The new porous polymer membranes can be used to selectively separate foulants from all different kinds of liquid solutions, from dirty water to oily wastewater.

According to Schiffman, polymer membranes are the state-of-the-art technology used to remove particulates and waterborne pathogens from dirty water and wastewater. Unfortunately, however, during their operation these membranes get fouled and require regular physical and/or chemical cleaning, which increases process downtime and causes membrane degradation.

“Additionally,” says Schiffman, “the current process used to manufacture polymer membranes relies heavily on toxic solvents and the membrane itself does not prevent the accumulation of particulates on its surface.”

Schiffman’s NSF BRITE project is designed to solve this nest of problems by using a toxin-free manufacturing process that produces polymer membranes which remain stubbornly resistant to fouling.

And this research will have utilizations far beyond producing clean water. According to Schiffman, “Selective polymer membranes that resist fouling are preferred for wastewater treatment and water remediation applications, as well as additional separation applications, such as industrial cleaning, food processing, protein separation, hydrocarbon separation, and gene engineering. Therefore, results from this research will benefit the U.S. economy, the environment, and society.”

The mission of the Schiffman Research Group is to use green engineering to design next-generation materials that improve human health and the environment.  (January 2023)

Article posted in Research