Molecular Builders: Constructing Nanoporous Materials

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Department of Chemical Engineering

Abstract

Separations demand more than half of all the capital and operating costs associated with processing industries. This is because separation is often achieved by boiling liquids to make them turn into a gas. However, turning liquids into gases involves injecting a lot of energy, to overcome the attractive forces between the molecules of the liquid. One way of avoiding this large energy input is to carry out separations in the liquid phase via a membrane. This avoids the large energy injections of evaporation or distillation. Theoretical calculations show that the energy required for concentrating a mixture by membrane separation is less than 5% of the energy required to evaporate the liquid.

This project is to support a world leading research group research develop radical new ways of making membranes for separations. Now, we make them through mixing, pouring and smoothing out solutions of polymers and ceramics. This creates waste and is hard to control accurately. In the future, we want to make membranes by bit by bit through assembly of small units, and by creating well defined molecular structures where we know the positions of the molecules. We will do this by learning new techniques in materials engineering and chemistry, and putting them to work making membranes. To achieve this ambitious goal, we intend to learn the techniques we need from experts around the world. We will then bring them all together and focus on making membranes and filters for separations. Then, we will use these membranes in a wide range of applications that are currently not feasible with existing membranes.

For the platform grant renewal period, we will revolutionise the membrane fabrication process. We will seek to manufacture composite materials comprising a controlled porosity support, coated by a molecularly defined separating layer. This will require research into new ways to assemble porous polymer and inorganic support films, using functional printing, a rapidly developing technology for making 3D materials in a controlled way. We will then coat these controlled porosity support films with molecularly defined separating layers in which the molecular structure can be manipulated. Finally, we will develop imaging techniques to view the structures we have made at the nanometre scale. We will use the membranes to deal with separation problems that current membranes cannot reach, such as synthesis of pharmaceuticals in continuously operating reactors, production of DNA and RNA for therapeutic needs, and the recovery of water from salty and contaminated feeds generated in the oil and gas industry.

To succeed in this ambitious goal we will need to train our post-doctoral research team in a diverse range of techniques, most of which we do not employ currently. We will do this by working with other research teams around the world who are experts in the techniques we want to learn. Through a planned programme of research our post-doctoral team will gain valuable experience in areas almost completely different from those they have previously worked in, enabling them to establish and broaden their track record. Importantly, the platform grant will enable us to retain valuable knowledge and expertise in our group. This will provide the continuity necessary to maintain an internationally leading position, and also for the post-docs to build their expertise and multidisciplinary outlook through the planned acquisition of new skills. The synthesis of the new techniques, and their combination with our existing skills, will lead to world beating new science and engineering, and new products manufactured in the UK.

Planned Impact

The economic benefits of the research proposed are the business around manufacturing and selling new materials that arise from the research, and the economic benefit of the applications of these materials.

The membranes research group at Imperial College has a strong demonstrated record in the commercialisation of membranes derived from its research. Evonik MET, based in West London, is the only dedicated manufacturing facility for organic solvent nanofiltration membranes in the world. The fundamental processes they used were developed at Imperial College with EPSRC research funding, much of it provided by the initial platform grant.

If the application for renewal is successful, it will generate a revolutionary range of new materials, with potential in separations, and other applications such as the preparation of composite materials. The most likely interest in these materials will come from companies who manufacture structured polymer and ceramic materials, including membrane manufacturers, and these companies may license the technology developed. Alternatively, there may be the opportunity for creation of new companies to develop and market these new materials, where this makes more economic sense, or where risk hinders larger companies from getting involved. In either case, economic benefits will derive, including investment in capital equipment and creation of skilled jobs, from the manufacture of these new materials.

A further economic impact will come through the application of these films to industry. We envisage that they will be used for filtration in organic solvents, and also in desalination and filtration of water. Membranes are generally one of the lowest energy forms of separating components of liquids, and so the end users will obtain economic benefits from energy savings and reduction in complexity of their processes. These end users are likely to be industrial companies operating in the full range of chemical sciences businesses, from oil and gas extraction and refining to the food, chemical and pharmaceutical industries. It is important that the materials we create can be manufactured, and we have deep experience with the scale up to commercial use of developmental materials. It is instructive to note that sales of membranes for desalination and nanofiltration are around £2 billion. If our printed membranes became the paradigm replacing the current support membranes used in RO composite membranes, the technology we propose to develop could be truly revolutionary.

These economic benefits have parallel social benefits. The manufacture of advanced membrane materials creates high level and knowledge intensive employment, and improves the national accounts through exports achieved. The application of the new materials in industry will reduce energy consumption, and so CO2 production; and the purification of water is a key societal need.

Publications

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Calvez C (2016) One step synthesis of MOF-polymer composites in RSC Advances

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Gaffney PR (2015) Liquid-Phase Synthesis of 2'-Methyl-RNA on a Homostar Support through Organic-Solvent Nanofiltration. in Chemistry (Weinheim an der Bergstrasse, Germany)

 
Description This grant has enabled the development and application of novel separation processes, with a strong focus on membrane technology in aqueous and non-aqueous solutions. Our researchers have furthered their knowledge of a range of separation techniques and processes, particularly in organic solvent nanofitration used for separating molecules present in organic solvents. Our innovative research in this field has resulted in the creation of membranes with exceptional stability in organic solvents, coupled to high flux and excellent rejection performance. The researchers have successfully developed innovative membrane separation techniques and membrane applications in water treatment, recycling, bio pharmaceuticals, fuel cells, waste treatment and food processing among other areas.
Exploitation Route The Group aims to extend collaborations with academic and industrial partners within different process industries and in membrane manufacturing in order to pioneer novel technologies which offer cost-efficient methods to develop membrane modules and process applications.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

 
Description Research in membrane technology has resulted in industrial collaborations within a range of industrial sectors, particularly within energy and pharmacuticals. These collaborative partners are utilising research findings to develop cost-effective, robust, and energy saving alternative to conventional separation technologies.
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Chemicals,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology
Impact Types Societal,Economic

 
Description BP International Centre for Advanced Materials 
Organisation BP (British Petroleum)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Imperial College is one of the four spoke organisations of BP International Centre of Advanced Materials.
Collaborator Contribution Research led by Professor Andrew Livingston within BP-ICAM seeks to understand at the atomic level, the structure and mechanisms of membranes and to use this understanding to develop models that can better predict the behaviours of membranes in practical applications. This will give us better methods for designing membranes tuned for specific applications in the energy industry.
Impact This collaboration is multi-disciplinary involving chemical engineers, mechnical engineers, materials scientists and chemists. Imperial College London has distinctive expertise in membranes and other adsorbent technologies for separations, and has capability in the molecular modelling of materials across all scales. In addition its skills in surface science and characterisation, tribology and corrosion science are used in several ICAM projects on Surface Interactions. Imperial College London is also a world class centre in the Non-Destructive Testing of materials.
Start Year 2012
 
Description Barrer Centre 
Organisation Imperial College London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The Barrer Centre is run by a Leadership team consisting of a Director, Deputy Directoy and three Theme Leaders, each with research area responsibilities. Prof Livingston and Prof Li are founders and Directors of the Barrer Centre. The management team is responsible for setting the priorities, allocating resources and ensuring that all researchers contribute towards the aims of the Barrer Centre. In addition, the team is responsible for the long-term vision and for adjusting the organisation structure and research directions to accommodate opportunities. The members are also champions for separations research in academic, industry, policy and other forums, both in the UK and overseas.
Collaborator Contribution Associate members across the College help to guide research directions.
Impact None
Start Year 2016
 
Title Improved polymer synthesis 
Description Improved techniques for synthesising polymer materials. Inventors Livingston, Gaffney, Kim, Valtcheva, Schaepertoens 
IP Reference GB1414120.4 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2014
Licensed No
Impact Leading tonPCT/GB2015/052310
 
Title Naofiltration membranes 
Description Novel membranes stable in solvents. 
IP Reference GB1401392.4 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2014
Licensed No
Impact Leading to PCT/GB2015/050179
 
Title Process for preparing polymers 
Description New process for preparing polymers 
IP Reference GB1413954.7 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2014
Licensed No
Impact Leading to PCT/GB2015/052287
 
Title Solvent resistant diafiltration of peptides, PNA or oligonucleotides 
Description A novel process for the preparation of a first compound selected from peptides, oligonucleotides and peptide nucleic acids. The process comprises synthesizing the first compound and then separating the first compound formed in step (i) from a second compound, which is a reaction by-product of the synthesis of the first compound and/or an excess of a reagent used for the synthesis of a first compound by a process of diafiltration. The membrane used for the diafiltration process is stable in organic solvents and provides a rejection for the first compound which is greater than the rejection for the second compound. 
IP Reference US8664357 
Protection Patent granted
Year Protection Granted 2014
Licensed No
Impact Unknown
 
Description Imperial College Science and Sports Day, 18 March 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Organised by Imperial College with Queens Park Rangers Football Club to explore science behind sport and engage with local community.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Imperial Festival 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An annual event that aims to showcase science and engineering research at Imperial Cillege. Our demonstration showed the superiority of membranes to purify water.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.imperial.ac.uk
 
Description Imperial Festival 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Imperial Festival provides an important route for staff and students across College to engage with priority audiences, including funders, alumni and policy makers, as well as the general public. It is also a significant platform to put our public engagement skills into practice. The achievements of our previous Festivals have been heavily dependent on the significant, high-quality contributions from colleagues across College, for which we continue to be very grateful. In 2015 the event attracted over 15,000 people.

The team demonstrated - to the wider public - the superiority of membrane technology by running two electricity generating bicycles, one connected to a membrane unit and one to an evaporation unit, and comparing the amount of water priced by both.
Over 350 visitors visited this specific demonstration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016,2017
URL http://www.imperial.ac.uk/be-inspired/festival/
 
Description Imperial Festival 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The College's free annual festival was held on 6th and 7th of May giving the public an opportunity to go behind-the-scenes and explore the latest research at Imperial College.

The Festival provided something for all ages to enjoy, from live interactive experiments, new technology demonstrations, in-depth talks, lab tours, musical and dance-based performances, and creative workshops within zones themed around Robots, Superbugs, Health & Body, the Future, and Energy and Environment.

The Barrer Centre demonstrated a membrane system used to purify water and compared it directly with a coventional system based on water evaporation (ie boiling) and condensing. The energy requirement for the membrane system was significantly less than for the conventional system.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Imperial Fringe Event 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Imperial Fringe is a series of public events exploring scientific achievements. Aimed at engaging with public audiences.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description National Women in Engineering Day 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact National Women in Engineering Day was held on 23 June 2016 to celebrate the achievements of women in engineering and raise the priofile of engineering and technology careers for women. Researchers showcased membrane technology with interactive demonstration of membranes efficiency in purifying water,
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016