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Membrane Methods for Arsenic Removal

Arsenic contamination of drinking water has been reported from many parts of world. In some arsenic affected areas, substitution of drinking water source by a safe and easily available one may not be possible during part or all of the year, or may be very expensive. Arsenic removal may be a more appropriate water supply option in these situations. Among different removal methods membrane method is discussed in this blog.
Synthetic membranes are available which are selectively permeable: the structure of the membrane is such that some molecules can pass through, while others are excluded, or rejected. Membrane filtration has the advantage of removing many contaminants from water, including bacteria, salts, and various heavy metals.
Two classes of membrane filtration can be considered: low-pressure membranes, such as microfiltration and ultrafiltration; and high-pressure membranes such as nanofiltration and reverse osmosis. Low-pressure membranes have larger nominal pore sizes, and are operated at pressures of 10-30 psi. The tighter high-pressure membranes are typically operated at pressures from 75 to 250 psi, or even higher (Letterman, 1999).
From Figure 1, it is clear that reverse osmosis (RO) and nanofiltration (NF) membranes have pore sizes appropriate for removal of dissolved arsenic, which is in the ‘metal ion’ size range. Both RO and NF membranes are most often operated in lateral configurations, in which only a small amount of the raw water (10-15%) passes through the membrane as permeate. In household systems, where only a small amount of treated water is required for cooking and drinking, this low recovery rate may be acceptable. Municipal systems achieve higher recovery rates (80 to over 90%) by using multiple membrane units in series.
In recent years, a new generation of RO and NF membranes have been developed that are less expensive and operate at lower pressures, yet allow improved flux and are capable of efficient rejection of both arsenate and arsenite. Waypa and others have showed that some of the new membranes, operated at pressures ranging from 40-400 psi, were able to reject from 96-99% of both arsenate and arsenite in spiked natural waters. The authors attribute this rejection of arsenite to the relatively large molecular weight of both arsenate and arsenic, rather than charge repulsion. At these high arsenic rejection rates, membrane filtration can result in extremely low arsenic levels in treated water.
Arsenic removal was found to be independent of pH and the presence of co-occurring solutes, but was somewhat improved at lower temperatures. Interestingly, the NF membrane tested performed comparably to the RO membranes, even though the operating pressure was much lower (40-120 psi, compared to 200-400 psi) (Waypa et al., 1997). Membrane filtration requires a relatively high-quality influent water. Membranes can be fouled by colloidal matter in the raw water, particularly organic matter. Iron and manganese can also lead to scaling and membrane fouling. To prevent fouling, reverse osmosis filters are almost always preceded by a filtration step.
Membrane filtration has the advantage of lowering the concentrations of many other components in addition to arsenic. Even ultrafiltration (UF) membranes are able to remove over 99.9% of bacteria, Giardia and viruses. Also, the membrane itself does not accumulate arsenic, so disposal of used membranes would be simple. Operation and maintenance requirements are minimal: no chemicals need be added, and maintenance would consist of ensuring a reasonably constant pressure, and periodically wiping the membrane clean. The main disadvantages are low water recovery rates (typically only 10-20% of the raw water passes through the membrane), the need to operate at high pressures, relatively high capital and operating costs, and the risk of membrane fouling. Also, particularly with RO, the treated water has very low levels of dissolved solids, and can be very corrosive, and deficient in minerals which can be important micronutrients for humans.

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