Ph.D. student Rushabh Shah of the Chemical Engineering (ChE) Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has been awarded a one-year, $11,750 fellowship from the American Membrane Technology Association (AMTA) and the Bureau of Reclamation to study a pioneering approach to improve the performance of ultrafiltration membranes. The AMTA/Reclamation Fellowships for Membrane Technology are competitive awards given to fulltime graduate students pursuing innovations for water treatment in membrane-related research at universities or colleges in the United States.
As Shah explains the background of the research: “We all know water is one of the most essential components of our life. Yet, a lot of people are struggling to get access to clean drinking water. In the 2019 Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum determined that the water crisis is a societal and environmental risk and leading to diseases, including diarrhea, cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis.”
Ultrafiltration membranes are often used to fight this water scarcity and degraded water quality because of their effective removal of particulates and waterborne pathogens from drinking water. Ultrafiltration is a type of membrane filtration which uses finely porous membranes (pore diameter of 1-100 nm) to separate water and microsolutes from macromolecules and colloids.
But one key problem is that membranes get dirty during their operation. As Shah explains, “The accumulation of bacteria on the surface of the membrane and in the pores of the membrane significantly reduces process productivity.”
“Thus,” concludes Shah, “our lab’s goal is to design membranes that will reduce membrane biofouling and increase the lifetime of the membrane.”
To delay such biofouling, researchers have focused on functionalizing the membrane’s surface with active antifouling and antibacterial agents. However, these surface modifications typically result in some loss or change in membrane attributes.
Shah and his advisor, ChE Associate Professor and Interim Department Head Jessica Schiffman, have sought inspiration from nature to solve this fouling problem: the Nepenthes pitcher plant. Under the mentorship of Schiffman and with the support from his lab colleagues at UMass Amherst, Shah will use his AMTA/Reclamation fellowship to develop a bioinspired approach to membrane technology called liquid-infused membranes, which does not require toxic chemicals or mechanical cleaning.
As a part of the fellowship, Shah will be presenting a podium presentation at the Membrane Technology Conference and Exposition (MTC22) taking place in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The research is also supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Shah’s fellowship was one of only four awarded nationally by the AMTA and Bureau of Reclamation. The research in these fellowships must pertain to the advancement of membrane technology in the water, wastewater, or water-reuse industries. As the fellowship requirement states, the research must be consistent with AMTA’s vision to “solve water supply and quality issues through the widespread application of membrane technology.” (September 2021)