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13th International Congress on Membranes and Membrane Processes (ICOM 2023), July 9th to July 14th, 2023
Makuhari Messe, Chiba, Japan


Panel session WA-MS at ICOM 2023
July 11th 2023, Room 5

Circular economy, green processes and sustainability: which membrane advances and what is their future roles?

Our planet is confronted with diverse challenges starting with water scarcity that gives rise to food stress and migration issues. Climate change is causing extreme weather conditions, sea level rise, and the melting of ice caps. Recently, a new challenge has emerged: the depletion of essential raw materials like Indium (used in LCDs), Tantalum (found in cell phones), Platinum (used in jewelry, catalysts, and fuel cells), Lithium (crucial for batteries), among others. Membrane processes have been touching different sectors for the hope of mitigating these issues, or offering alternatives. Membranes are essential for water desalination, CO2 capture and conversion, and resource recovery, promoting sustainability and the circular economy.


The World Association of Membrane Societies (WA-MS), invited experts in membrane technology to discuss the use of membranes and the obstacles they face in meeting sustainability goals and support circular economy. Notably, Dr. Seong Yong Ha, Dr. Tim Merkel and Dr. Volkan Filiz were invited to share their perspective and advice in a panel session during 13th International Congress on Membranes and Membrane Processes (ICOM 2023) in Chiba, Japan. The panel was moderated by Prof. Mikel Duke from Victoria University in Australia and Ms. Sara Chergaoui from UCLouvain University in Belgium.


Dr. Ha is a founder and CEO of Airrane Co. LTD. in Cheongju Korea. Initially, the interest of Airrane was to produce and recycle membrane modules, but 10 years later their main focus has been the development of membranes for industrial partners. Dr. Filiz is the head of microporous polymer department in Hereon, institute of membrane research in Germany. Helmholz institute focuses on monomers and polymers for membrane applications in liquid and gas phase. They try to combine the research projects towards serving society and help overcoming the current challenges like CO2 capture. Dr. Merkel is vice president of technology at Membrane Technology and Research (MTR) in the USA. He has been at MTR for 19 years. Their mission primarily centers on providing energy-efficient membrane solutions to recover valuable components from industrial waste streams.  Their research is focused on achieving significant outcomes that benefit society in important applications such as decarbonizing the industrial and power sectors. 


The moderators posed critical questions to the esteemed panelists, requesting them to share their thoughts and experiences on the current global challenges. The organizers and audience eagerly anticipated their insights on these pressing issues.

Question1: You’ve seen different presentations, and different attempts to commercialization. From your own/ company’s perspective, what are the most recent advances in membrane and their future role?
Dr. Seong Yong Ha's perspective is that companies view nowadays membranes as a new technology and as a result can be hesitant to adopt them. The challenge is to convey whether membranes are a necessity or a simple upgrade. To convince the necessity of this technology, it is key to develop a process (for carbon capture for example) that is feasible not only from a technical perspective but also economically viable. For countries like Korea, where space is limited, membranes offer great promise due to their compact nature.


Dr. Volkan Filiz raised his perspective that membranes have potential in many areas such as water purification, although in Germany drinking water does not constitute an issue. Membranes for carbon dioxide capture from the source emission is necessary, and reduces energy consumption in chemical industries. Recovery of elements is vital as well, particularly interesting for semi-conductor industries.


Dr. Tim Merkel believes that there are many materials advances that offer potential new pathways to produce better membranes. While it is exciting and interesting to develop new generation materials, the challenge is how to harness these advances in practical solutions and commercialize them. In the recent past, industry and academics have not been very successful in this regard.  For example, in gas separations, largely the same membrane materials used 30 years ago are still being used today.  Better collaborations between industrial and academic groups with aligned goals can hopefully improve this situation to allow new material breakthroughs to produce better membrane solutions that achieve widespread adoption to benefit society. 


During the panel discussion, two key points emerged from the audience:
1. The Secret to Membrane Commercialization: To facilitate membrane commercialization, experts stressed the importance of boosting technology readiness to TRLs (Technology Readiness Levels) 4 or 5, effectively demonstrating a working system. It is vital to communicate the practical benefits of membranes, focusing on tangible outcomes such as throughput and consumption, rather than technical intricacies. It was recommended to academic researchers to investigate more than simply permeability and selectivity. Clear and convincing arguments are essential, considering that most industries tend to be conservative in adopting new technologies.


2. Overcoming Industry-Academia Collaboration Barriers: The main concern is that industries prefer to have a working solution and publishing papers are lower priority, while academics need publications to reflect the progress of their research work, and move forward in their career. In reality, most industries are not against publications as far as a patent is released, so this can be seen as a compromise. A second concern is the ambiguity over the needs, industrial partners do not usually clearly express or directly state their needs. Academic researchers develop new solutions and materials regardless for the sake of advancement in science and bring attention to new solutions that can potentially be commercialized. But for academic research to have a chance of commercial success, there needs to be a strong understanding of the industry and its needs. Often direct collaboration with the industry is valuable for both sides to be at the cutting edge.


Question 2: In circular economy, where products (not wastes) are generated, how do you envision membranes playing a role and what are the key challenges?


Dr. Seong Yong Ha believes that membranes can significantly contribute to the circular economy in two vital ways. First, they aid in waste reduction by recycling streams through membrane distillation and pervaporation, especially in solvent recovery. Second, membranes can be used in separation and purification of high value products from mixtures in food and pharmaceutical industries. As for the barriers of using membranes for circular economy, first is the lifetime of the membrane, capital cost and lack of knowledge. Many industries want to recycle their solvents, use membranes in their processes but they don’t know much about membranes that help them with implementation. Demonstrating successful membrane operations in practice is essential to endorse their adoption.


Dr. Volkan Filiz's perspective is that membranes can be used to purify products and separate products in many areas with less energy consumption. They’re less time consuming, and more compact. Less energy consuming processes mean cost savings, which contributes to a circular economy. The issue now is that if a new membrane is developed even if it is 10-fold better, industries would not risk modifying their process that has been successfully operating for decades. Also, addressing the issue of long-term stability over many years is crucial to encourage industry-wide adoption.


Dr. Tim Merkel suggested that the potential for membranes to contribute to circular economy goals is substantial, given their energy-efficient and non-reactive properties. Carbon capture for example using membranes is a key focus today to help solve the climate crisis. Membranes do not produce any secondary waste during operation, which is greatly advantageous, but there are still challenges such as questions of membrane lifetime that need more attention and consideration.


The audience brought up the concern of membrane end of life disposal and the possibility to use biopolymers. While biodegradable materials could offer recycling advantages, their short operational lifetime could be problematic. Industrial membranes must be robust to survive in their operating environment, so there may be tradeoffs in the types of materials that can be used. We noticed as well that there is a growing wave of interest in green materials for membrane development in recent membrane conferences, which is good to see. Recycling of membrane modules is a potential alternative that should be a greater focus, also the eco-friendliness of solvents since they are mainly used for the production of membranes. Companies especially in Korea already began finding alternative solvents. 


Question 3: What would be your advice for young researchers to fit their research to the global vision of circular economy?
Dr. Volkan Filiz's advice for ECRs is to keep hope. Research takes time. The research a PhD scholar is conducting now may not give impact immediately, but perhaps after 10 more PhDs. A good compromise between fundamental and applied research is necessary though to maintain the balance.


In alignment with Dr Volkan’s advise, Dr. Tim Merkel emphasized the importance and value of bridging the gap between fundamental and applied research for young researchers. Furthermore, he encourages them not to shy away from exploring new ideas and to maintain an optimistic outlook throughout their journey.


Written by SARA CHERGAOUI, MIKEL DUKE, AMIR RAZMJOU and LUCY M. CAMACHO
The panel session was organized by the WA-MS Industry & Research Connections Working Group: Lucy Mar Camacho (NAMS), Uwe Beuscher (NAMS), Takeo Yamaguchi (AMS), Tzyy Haur Chong (AMS), Norbert Selzer (EMS), and Silvia Alvarez Blanco (EMS).

 

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