3D visualization of the internal nanostructure of polyamide thin films in RO membranes

Federico Pacheco Oreamuno, Rachid Sougrat, Martin Reinhard, James O. Leckie, Ingo Pinnau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

144 Scopus citations


The front and back surfaces of fully aromatic polyamide thin films isolated from reverse osmosis (RO) membranes were characterized by TEM, SEM and AFM. The front surfaces were relatively rough showing polyamide protuberances of different sizes and shapes; the back surfaces were all consistently smoother with very similar granular textures formed by polyamide nodules of 20–50 nm. Occasional pore openings of approximately the same size as the nodules were observed on the back surfaces. Because traditional microscopic imaging techniques provide limited information about the internal morphology of the thin films, TEM tomography was used to create detailed 3D visualizations that allowed the examination of any section of the thin film volume. These tomograms confirmed the existence of numerous voids within the thin films and revealed structural characteristics that support the water permeance difference between brackish water (BWRO) and seawater (SWRO) RO membranes. Consistent with a higher water permeance, the thin film of the BWRO membrane ESPA3 contained relatively more voids and thinner sections of polyamide than the SWRO membrane SWC3. According to the tomograms, most voids originate near the back surface and many extend all the way to the front surface shaping the polyamide protuberances. Although it is possible for the internal voids to be connected to the outside through the pore openings on the back surface, it was verified that some of these voids comprise nanobubbles that are completely encapsulated by polyamide. TEM tomography is a powerful technique for investigating the internal nanostructure of polyamide thin films. A comprehensive knowledge of the nanostructural distribution of voids and polyamide sections within the thin film may lead to a better understanding of mass transport and rejection mechanisms in RO membranes.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)33-44
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Membrane Science
StatePublished - Nov 4 2015

Bibliographical note

KAUST Repository Item: Exported on 2020-10-01

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Filtration and Separation
  • General Materials Science
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry


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