Bielefeld University heading EU project on ultra-thin membranes
Credit: Photo: Bielefeld University
Researchers and engineers from seven countries want to develop special filters on the nano scale. They are cooperating in a new project that has now been approved by the European Union. The new filters are to produce ultrapure water for applications in, for example, industry and research. At the same time, they should make it possible to extract water from liquids such as milk or fruit juice to produce concentrates. The project is being funded with a total of three million euros. Bielefeld University will be in charge of the research cooperation that will run until 2023.
The project works with carbon nanomembranes (CNM). These are thin sheets of carbon that are a millionth of a millimetre thick. ‘These nanomembranes have special separation properties,’ says the head of the new project, physics professor Dr Armin Gölzhäuser from Bielefeld University. Co-project manager is physics professor Dr Dario Anselmetti, also from Bielefeld University.
‘CNM are extremely permeable for water while simultaneously blocking the flow of all other substances such as dissolved salts or small organic molecules,’ Gölzhäuser explains. In 2018, Gölzhäuser’s research group succeeded in producing the first ever CNM that allows water molecules to pass through while filtering out other substances.
The new project aims to exploit the special properties of nanomembranes for industry and research. ‘To achieve this, we are going beyond the laboratory scale and producing functional nanomembranes with much larger surfaces,’ says Gölzhäuser. ‘We shall also be developing our own prototype plants that can filter with the membranes. ‘How well the filter systems work will finally be tested under realistic conditions by our cooperation partner CNM Technologies. The company is a spin-off of Bielefeld University and is based in the Innovationszentrum Campus Bielefeld (ICB).
The filter plants should initially be able to produce two different ‘products’: ultrapure water and beverage concentrates. Ultrapure water is water containing as few dissolved substances as possible. Salts and impurities are filtered out. ‘Such water is needed wherever things have to be extremely clean,’ says co-project manager Dario Anselmetti. Examples are products in the pharmaceutical industry, computer chip production, and experiments in microbiology.
Beverage concentrates are used in the food industry to reduce transport and storage costs. Freshly squeezed juices are usually heated to reduce their volume. However, the project will be applying a process that does not require heating: ‘cold concentration’. The nano filters remove the water from the juices. What remains is a concentrate that can be filtered down to a fruit powder. Milk and coffee can also be converted into powder this way. ‘Cold concentration saves a lot of energy compared to thermal processes and does not destroy any flavours,’ says Armin Gölzhäuser.
The project is called ‘Water separation revolutionized by ultrathin carbon nanomembranes’, short title: ‘Its-thin’. The project is being funded by the EU Research Framework Programme Horizon 2020 under the pillar ‘Scientific Excellence’, thematic area ‘Future and Emerging Technologies’.
Of the three million euros in total funding, 890,000 euros will go to Bielefeld University. The ‘Its thin’ network includes the University of Maribor (Slovenia), the Technical University of Denmark, the University of Patras (Greece), the Technical University of Riga (Latvia), the École normale supérieure de Paris (France), the company CNM Technologies (Germany), which specializes in nanomembranes, and the process developer BLUE-tec (Netherlands).
‘Ultradünne Membran kann Wasser filtern [Ultra-thin membrane can filter water]’ (press release on 14.09.2018)
‘Kohlenstoff-Nanomembranen. Ein Sieb für Moleküle [Carbon nanomembranes. A sieve for molecules]’ (research_tv report on 30.08.2017)
Prof. Dr Armin Gölzhäuser, Bielefeld University
Faculty of Physics, Research Group ‘Physics of Supramolecular Systems and Surfaces
Phone: +49 521 106-5362
Prof. Dr Armin Gölzhäuser