New insights into 3D printing of spacers and membranes
To also address the controversies on the feasibility of 3D printing for membranes, researchers from SUTD and NTU have coined a new term ‘hybrid additive manufacturing’ for the water treatment industry
3D printing has seen great advancements in various aspects over the past few decades, and many industries have seen innovative breakthroughs in their respective fields. Amongst them, the water treatment industry has also reaped benefits off the prospects of 3D printing. High performance spacers and membranes can be fabricated by 3D printing, and they help increase permeate production while minimising energy consumption in purification processes.
Researchers from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) reviewed the recent efforts, shortcomings as well as the conflicting reports of 3D printing in membrane-based water treatment (refer to figure). Their research paper entitled ‘A review on spacers and membranes: Conventional or hybrid additive manufacturing?’ has been published in Water Research.
In the paper, they showed the potential of 3D printed spacers. The great freedom of design in 3D printing enables the fabrication of complex and innovative spacers, which was previously impossible with conventional heat extrusion methods. These spacers were able to reduce the number of dead zones within the flow channel, and help mitigate detrimental membrane fouling problems. Some spacer designs such as the helical spacer, turbospacer, and column spacer were even able to reduce energy consumption.
An interesting perspective was also presented in the paper regarding the feasibility of 3D printed membranes. Microfiltration membranes (MF) with pore sizes
In an attempt to resolve this confusion, the paper critically analyses these 3D printed membranes, especially on 3D printing’s role in the overall fabrication process. Hybrid additive manufacturing, a process where 3D printing is used in conjunction with other established fabrication methods, is also introduced in the paper. It shows how 3D printing can still be a powerful tool in the fabrication of membranes when used together with other established processes despite its inadequate printing resolution.
“3D printing is gradually evolving from a single-standalone process to a multi-integrated process. The application continues to grow in the water treatment industry, especially the membrane-based technologies. Future focus is expected to shift from lab scale prototyping to large scale manufacturing,” said principal investigator Associate Professor Chong Tzyy Haur from NTU.
“It will not be an easy challenge to overcome upscaling and material limitations, but consistent research efforts are already evident today. Potentially, 4D printing can even be a possibility in the future to fabricate smart spacers and membranes that adapt to its surrounding environment,” explained co-author Professor Chua Chee Kai from SUTD.
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