Memtec Membrane Technology

Memtec Membrane Technology
Chris Fell
Chris Fell
Emeritus Professor Chris Fell at the UNESCO Centre for Membrane Science and Technology at UNSW.
Every time you turn on a tap for a glass of clean drinking water, chances are it’s been treated using UNSW’s membrane filtration technology.

Clean, safe drinking water is perhaps the most precious natural resource we have. When you drink a glass from your municipal supplier there’s a good chance it’s been filtered using membrane technology pioneered by UNSW engineers.

In the mid-1970s, an undergraduate chemical engineering student at UNSW began looking at ways to filter the effluent emitted from his father’s starch factory so it could be re-used or safely returned to the environment.

The project prompted a team of UNSW researchers to begin investigating membrane technologies more rigorously.  

Membrane filters are thin, porous structures used to separate materials and fluids. They allow water to pass through, but trap and remove organic matter and pathogens.

Post-war American scientists had already been working on high-pressure membrane filters for desalination – the process of converting seawater into drinking water. And in 1960, the first commercially viable membrane for this purpose was demonstrated.

But high-pressure water treatment was costly, both in terms of energy and the physical materials required to build the membrane modules and the supporting infrastructure.

The breakthrough came in 1977, when Professor Chris Fell from the UNSW School of Chemical Engineering, along with visiting scientist Dr Michel Lefebvre, developed and patented a new type of membrane made of hollow nylon fibres. They recognised that these unusual membranes could be used at low pressures to successfully remove macromolecules and pathogens from water.

“At the time, this was a transformational technology because nobody was thinking about low pressure treatment,” says Professor Fell.

Low-pressure microfiltration made water treatment more affordable and it eventually became the preferred method for treating potable and process water.

UNSW sold the technology to an Australian company called Baxter Travenol Laboratories, which in 1983 established the company Memtec Limited.

In 1998, Memtec was sold for US$600 million to American company US Filter. It is now an integral part of the water portfolio of engineering giant Siemens International, under the name Memcor.

“There is an entire global industry in hollow fibre membranes for water treatment built on the trail that was blazed by Memcor building on Professor Chris Fell’s research,” says Dr Andrew Groth, the Global R&D Director with Siemens Water Technologies.

The research led to the formation of the UNESCO Centre for Membrane Science and Technology at UNSW, which continues to operate and produce internationally respected research.

Quote: 
"There is an entire global industry in hollow fibre membranes for water treatment built on the trail that was blazed by Memcor building on Professor Chris Fell’s research."
Author: 
Dr Andrew Groth, the Global R & D Director with Siemens Water Technologies