Characterization of isolated polyamide thin films of RO and NF membranes using novel TEM techniques

Federico A. Pacheco, Ingo Pinnau, Martin Reinhard, James O. Leckie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

217 Scopus citations


Achieving a better understanding of transport and rejection mechanisms in RO and NF membranes requires more detailed information of the nanostructure of polyamide thin films. This study reports on two novel transmission electron microscopy (TEM) techniques for characterizing polyamide nanostructure. The first technique produces cross-sectional images of isolated polyamide thin films by removing the polysulfone support from regular TEM cross-sections. In the second technique called " projected area" TEM (PA-TEM), isolated polyamide thin films are placed with their surface perpendicular to the electron beam. The resulting images capture the thickness, morphology and mass density of the entire thin film. In combination, these new techniques provide information on polyamide nanostructure that is not evident using conventional methods. For the commercial RO membrane ESPA3, the cross-sectional view of the isolated polyamide thin film shows a 30-60. nm thick base of nodular polyamide (presumably the separation barrier) that forms a relatively smooth interface with the polysulfone support. Above this, a more open structure of loose polyamide extends outward giving rise to the ridge-and-valley surface structure. In PA-TEM images, the ridges and valleys correspond to the dark and bright regions, respectively; the polyamide nodular base appears as round features forming an irregular honeycomb pattern throughout the images. Membrane cross-sections were prepared with a simple resin embedding protocol using the acrylic resin LR White. The protocol did not require dehydration steps, and was applicable to both dry and wet membrane samples. Artifacts that may be produced during sample preparation were also documented. © 2010 Elsevier B.V.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)51-59
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Membrane Science
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Aug 15 2010

Bibliographical note

KAUST Repository Item: Exported on 2020-10-01
Acknowledgements: Funding for this work was provided by the Singapore Stanford Partnership (SSP); the STC WaterCAMPWS of the National Science Foundation under agreement #CTS-0120978; the Santa Clara Valley Water District (Agreement #A2727A); the Metropolitan Water District (Agreement 41808); and the California Department of Water Resources. Membrane samples used in this study were kindly donated by Dr. Craig Bartels of Hydranautics (ESPA3), and Dow FilmTec (NF270). The authors gratefully acknowledge John Perrino of the Cell Sciences Imaging Facility at Stanford University for his valuable contributions in developing the TEM embedding protocol and preparation of the grids, as well as Dr. Ann Marshall of the Stanford Nanocharacterization Laboratory for her generous assistance with the TEM EDS analysis.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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