Synthetic polymer membranes are widely used to purify water, mainly because they are more energy efficient than competing (e.g., thermally-based) technologies. However, water in energy applications is often heavily contaminated with a plethora of diverse organic and inorganic components (e.g., produced water from oil and gas production). Current membranes were not designed (and are unsuitable) for such applications. Basic science knowledge gaps in thermodynamic and kinetic behavior of complex aqueous mixtures at interfaces, and the effect of such mixtures on the interfacial properties, limit our ability to translate fundamental understanding to transformative materials design for energy/water applications. Moreover, current methods for synthesis and precision assembly of novel materials far from equilibrium prevent preparation of membranes for highly selective decontamination or resource recovery from such complex aqueous mixtures.
The Center for Materials for Water and Energy Systems (M-WET) will fill these gaps in the understanding of fluids and materials to catalyze design of novel surfaces, highly selective solute/fluid interactions, mesoscopic structures, and membranes for energy applications.
Our strategy bridges the chemistry, materials and process separation communities to: (1) design new interfaces with controlled topology and functionalities to achieve optimal affinity and reactivity specifically for water/energy systems (e.g., ion-specific separation, targeted destruction of specific contaminants); (2) control mesoscopic materials architecture to achieve exquisite control of pore size and pore size distribution in membranes to tune multicomponent fluid transport by leveraging design principles from (1); (3) develop novel materials imaging and spectroscopic tools that operate in-situ in operando in complex, aqueous fluid environments to probe water, solute and material interactions; and (4) model multicomponent interfaces, fluid mixtures, and mesoporous architecture to radically transform water and energy demands, resiliency, and efficiency of membrane/materials systems. A cross-cutting integrating framework leverages materials design insights to provide directions for breakthrough improvements in real separation processes. To achieve these goals requires deep, sustained, and interdisciplinary efforts in synthesis, characterization, and modeling to predict properties of multicomponent fluids at membrane interfaces, achieve mechanistic control of interfaces and transport in complex and extreme environments, and exploit the insight into specific material/fluid interactions to design and discover innovative materials for membranes. M-WET will improve fundamental understanding of thermodynamic and kinetic properties of complex aqueous mixtures and their interactions with surfaces, dense membranes, and porous membranes to predictively design highly permeable, selective, robust, and fouling resistant membranes to decontaminate complex aqueous mixtures and/or recover valuable resources from them.