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Direct Three-Dimensional Visualization of Membrane Fouling by Confocal Laser Scanning Microscopy

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journal contribution
posted on 29.04.2019, 19:33 authored by Yi-Min Lin, Chen Song, Gregory C. Rutledge
Membrane-based separation is an important technique for removing emulsified oil from water. However, the mechanisms of fouling are complex because of the deformability and potential for coalescence and break-up of the oil droplets. Here, we report for the first time direct, three-dimensional (3D) visualization of oil droplets on electrospun fiber microfiltration membranes after a period of membrane-based separation of oil-in-water emulsions. High-resolution 3D images were acquired by a dual-channel confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM) technique in which both the fibers and the oil (dodecane) were fluorescently labeled. The morphology of dodecane as the foulant was observed for two different types of fibers, an oleophobic nylon (PA6(3)­T), and oleophilic polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF). Through direct visualization, the rejected oil was found to form droplets of clam-shell shape on the PA6(3)­T fibers, whereas the oil tended to wet the PVDF fibers and spread across the membrane. The morphology was also analyzed as a function of separation time (i.e., “4D” imaging), as the oil accumulated within and upon the membranes. The observations are qualitatively consistent with a transition from blocking of individual pores in the membrane to coalescence of oil droplets into coherent liquid films with increasing filtration time. Analysis of permeate flux using blocking filtration models corroborate the transition of fouling modes indicated by the 3D images. This direct, 3D visualization CLSM technique is a powerful tool for characterizing the mechanisms of fouling in membranes used for liquid emulsion separations.