Developing membrane systems for improved water quality

The Sadrzadeh research group

Dr. Mohtada Sadrzadeh, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and his Advanced Water Research Laboratory (AWRL) were recently awarded over half a million dollars by the Government of Canada to pursue his research into membrane-based oil separation processes. The Government offered the award to researchers developing oil spill technologies and processes. Canada has the longest coastline in the world and Canada ships almost 80 million tons of oil a year, so oil spill recovery is an important issue for the federal government. Dr. Sadrzadeh saw the call for proposals and knew he could help and he also knew he could offer even more than what the government was looking for.

“When submitted the proposal I told them we’re developing membranes and systems that can treat water in the ocean also that our technologies can help treat water in the oil sands as well,” says Sadrzadeh. “Canadians have 20% of the world’s freshwater, but we cannot be relaxed about protecting it.”

Current oil sands technology relies upon freshwater from Alberta’s lakes and rivers. “Currently, oil sands producers recycle and reuse 80% produced water,” explains Sadrzadeh. “But that is not enough. We should be able to get it to more than 95%.”

So when Sadrzadeh applied to the oil spill recovery program, he was sure to include in his proposal the potential for his membranes and processes to make a difference to oil sands production as well.

Sadrzadeh is working to develop a “hybrid membrane-based” oil separation process. It is a “hybrid” technology because it relies on a combination of conventional oil spill technology, with the membrane processes and technologies that Sadrzadeh is developing. Conventional oil spill methods recover mostly heavy oils from oil spills. But they leave behind the dissolved oils in the water, which continue to pollute the water and harm ocean life. Sadrzadeh’s membrane processes are used in addition to these conventional techniques, to separate out this dissolved oil for higher water quality.

“The heart of the project is developing advanced membrane materials,” says Sadrzadeh. “We are developing membranes that are anti-fouling in order to increase their efficiency and their life span.”

Membrane projects

Although the funding announcement was made near the end of 2017, the project had already begun and the group is entering its second year of work on the project, which has two parts: the first part is the research, the second part is development. Currently the team is making membranes at lab scale and beginning to move into a pilot project. Developing hollow fibre membranes has been already started that enables scaling up and technology development. Once commercialized, the membrane technology will be deployed on the collection and treatment ships that currently use only conventional heavy oil collection and treatment processes.

“The distance between the research and development is not that large,” says Sadrzadeh, “It’s not our mission to go commercial here at the University. We’ll just get the membranes to a pilot scale and ready for commercialization.”

A view inside one of Sadrzadeh's labs

Sadrzadeh and his team have several other on-going projects, including a collaboration with IBM to develop membranes for wastewater treatment. “Whenever I talk about IBM people think I must be doing something with computing science,” laughs Sadrzadeh. “But they want to explore the application of their advanced materials for other applications through a Tri-agency collaboration between National Research Council, University of Alberta, and IBM Canada.”

The AWRL has hosted Dr. Young-hye Na from IBM previously and will run another workshop with her in the spring of 2018. She is also serving as an Adjunct Professor in our department.

Currently Dr. Sadrzadeh has a full complement of students but will be looking for new people in his lab come September. “A couple of students will defend and graduate and so that will open room in the lab,” he says. “I don’t want to have too many people because I want to be involved in everyone’s project and make sure everyone gets the attention they need.”

The AWRL also hires graduates to work in the lab as Postdoctoral Fellows and Research Associates. “It’s part of our mission to contribute opportunities for employment back to the community.”