Modeling the effect of spacers and biofouling on forward osmosis performance

  • María José Mosqueira Santillán

Student thesis: Master's Thesis


Currently, the most utilized desalination technology is reverse osmosis (RO), where a membrane is used as a physical barrier to separate the salts from the seawater, using high hydraulic pressure as driving force. A major problem in RO systems is biofouling, caused by severe growth of bacterial biofilms. Both, the need of an external energy input, as well as biofouling, impose a high cost on RO operation. Forward osmosis (FO) is an alternative membrane process that uses an osmotic pressure difference as driving force. FO uses a concentrated draw solution to generate high osmotic pressure, which extracts water across a semi permeable membrane from a feed solution. One of the main advantages of FO is the limited amount of external energy required to extract water from the feed solution. The objective of this research is the assessment of the impact of spacers, separating the membrane sheets, and biofouling on the FO system performance. This type of studies allow the optimization of membrane devices and operational conditions. For this, a two dimensional numerical model for FO systems was developed using computational fluid dynamics (CFD). This model allowed the evaluation of the impact of (i) spacers and (ii) biofilm, and (iii) the combined impact of spacers and biofilm on the performance of FO systems. The results obtained showed that the presence of spacers improved the performance of FO systems. Cavity configuration spacer gave the higher water flux across the membrane in clean systems; whereas for biofouled systems, the submerged configuration showed a better performance. In absence of spacers, the thickness or amount of biofilm is inversely proportional with the water flux. Furthermore, membrane surface coverage of the biofilm is more important than the amount of biofilm in terms of the impact on the performance. The numerical model can be adapted with other parameters (e.g. membrane and spacer thickness, feed and draw solution, solution concentration, etc.) to predict the impact of biofilm on FO systems under different experimental conditions. The use of numerical modeling may contribute to faster development of economic viable FO based desalination systems.
Date of AwardNov 2014
Original languageEnglish (US)
Awarding Institution
  • Biological, Environmental Sciences and Engineering
SupervisorPascal Saikaly (Supervisor)


  • Biofouling
  • Forward Osmosis
  • Biofilm
  • Internal Concentration Polarization
  • Membrane

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