Molecular mechanisms of thickness-dependent water desalination in polyamide reverse-osmosis membranes

JL He and T Arbaugh and D Nguyen and WK Xian and EMV Hoek and JR McCutcheon and Y Li, JOURNAL OF MEMBRANE SCIENCE, 674, 121498 (2023).

DOI: 10.1016/j.memsci.2023.121498

Using non-equilibrium molecular simulations, we systematically elaborate the relationships among synthesis (membrane's thickness and morphology), atomic-scale transport mechanism, and separation performance (permeability and selectivity) for 3D-printed polyamide (PA) membranes. Results indicated that water diffusion, swelling ratio, water flux, and water permeance proportionally decrease with increasing membrane thickness (4.0-32.5 nm). PA membranes with different thicknesses can achieve almost 100% salt rejection over the simulation time. Importantly, water permeability exponentially decreases with increasing thickness, and 15 nm is identified as the critical membrane thickness for efficient water transport. The discontinuous water-available space spreads all over PA membranes with thicknesses greater than 5 nm, allowing water molecules to jump by way of the temporary open-and-close pores. However, the connected water-useable space exists in PA mem- branes with thicknesses below 5 nm, offering the continuous channels to dominate water transport. More significantly, pore distribution is more homogeneous as the thickness increases. The applied high pressures can lead to membrane compaction during reverse osmosis and the thicker membranes show a lower compression ratio. In short, these investigations provide molecular insights for effectively designing and manufacturing PA membranes for water desalination and treatment at the molecular level.

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