Jessica Schiffman Wins NSF Grant to Sustainably Produce Polymer Membranes for Water Purification

Jessica Schiffman, Gary R. Lapidus Faculty Fellow in Chemical Engineering, has received a National Science Foundation grant to produce polymer membranes — a process that currently generates billions of liters of toxic, solvent-contaminated wastewater a year — using a sustainable, environmentally friendly and toxin-free method. 

Jessica Schiffman

Polymer membranes are used in water purification systems to remove particulates and waterborne pathogens from water and wastewater. Since the 1960s, the membrane manufacturing process has used non-solvent-induced phase separation, which generates more than 50 billion liters of contaminated wastewater each year. During operation particulates accumulate on the surface of the membranes, causing them to need regular physical and/or chemical cleaning, which increases process downtime and causes membrane degradation. 

Using her $386,034 grant under NSF’s BRITE (Boosting Research Ideas for Transformative and Equitable Advances in Engineering) program, Schiffman will use new chemistry to manufacture high-performance membranes from water-soluble charged polymers, water and salt and then evaluate the porous membranes’ stability, performance and fouling resistance. The new porous polymer membranes can be used to selectively separate foulants from many different kinds of liquid solutions, from dirty water to oily wastewater, and will be resistant to fouling. 

Schiffman’s proposal is one of two grants awarded under BRITE’s Synergy Track. The track is intended to support synthesis proposals that use prior research outcomes that remain unstudied to draw new conclusions and identify new directions, methodologies or paradigms.   

In addition to wastewater treatment and water remediation, Schiffman says polymer membranes that resist fouling are also desired for other separation applications, such as industrial cleaning, food processing, protein separation, hydrocarbon separation and gene engineering.