Fouling of Seawater Reverse Osmosis (SWRO) Membrane: Chemical and Microbiological Characterization

  • Muhammad T. Khan

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


In spite of abundant water resources, world is suffering from the scarcity of usable water. Seawater Reverse Osmosis (SWRO) desalination technology using polymeric membranes has been recognized as a key solution to water scarcity problem. However, economic sustainability of this advanced technology is adversely impacted by the membrane fouling problem. Fouling of RO membranes is a highly studied phenomenon. However, literature is found to be lacking a detailed study on kinetic and dynamic aspects of SWRO membrane fouling. The factors that impact the fouling dynamics, i.e., pretreatment and water quality were also not adequately studied at full–scale of operation. Our experimental protocol was designed to systematically explore these fouling aspects with the objective to improve the understanding of SWRO membrane fouling mechanisms. An approach with multiple analytical techniques was developed for fouling characterization. In addition to the fouling layer characterization, feed water quality was also analysed to assess its fouling potential. Study of SWRO membrane fouling dynamics and kinetics revealed variations in relative abundance of chemical and microbial constituents of the fouling layer, over operating time. Aromatic substances, most likely humic–like substances, were observed at relatively high abundance in the initial fouling layer, followed by progressive increase in relative abundances of proteins and polysaccharides. Microbial population grown on all membranes was dominated by specific groups/species belonging to different classes of Proteobacteria phylum; however, similar to abiotic foulant, their relative abundance also changed with the biofilm age and with the position of membrane element in RO vessel. Our results demonstrated that source water quality can significantly impact the RO membrane fouling scenarios. Moreover, the major role of chlorination in the SWRO membrane fouling was highlighted. It was found that intermittent mode of chlorination is better than continuous mode of chlorination of seawater, as anti–biofouling strategy. It was also confirmed that significant biofilm development was inevitable even with the use of chlorine to disinfect SWRO membranes. Our findings on the dynamic patterns of SWRO membrane fouling should help in further elaborating research projects focusing on the development of better strategies to minimize this troublesome phenomenon.
Date of AwardDec 2013
Original languageEnglish (US)
Awarding Institution
  • Biological, Environmental Sciences and Engineering
SupervisorJean-Philippe Croue (Supervisor)


  • Seawater Desalination
  • Reverse Osmosis
  • Biofilm
  • Membrane Fouling

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