Scientists at Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) have developed a new type of filtration technology that can remove small oil droplets from seawater.

The filtration technology features a new type of membrane which has unique chemical and physical properties, making it more efficient and fouling resistant during the oil/water separation process. The technology and membrane were developed by the QEERI Water Center with support from the Computational-Materials and Processes Center.

Seawater desalination is the main water source in Qatar and provides up to 99% of potable water needs while supporting a broad range of commercial, industrial and agricultural activities. Although thermal desalination is extensively used, Qatar is slowly moving towards the construction of more energy-efficient reverse osmosis (RO) membrane desalination plants. However, desalination facilities, especially RO membranes, are vulnerable to oil contamination in seawater.

The common strategies for oil spill response include spraying chemicals on the seawater surface to disperse oil slicks, and deploying floating booms to contain and collect oil. However, these practices stop short of preventing small oil droplets seeping into the seawater intake ports of desalination plants and causing damage or shutdown.

Dr Jenny Lawler, senior research director at QEERI Water Center said that oil spill threats are a matter of concern all across the Gulf, as these could potentially cause a complete shutdown of some desalination facilities, which could in turn affect the availability of clean drinking water for Qatar’s population.

Accordingly, the development and deployment of mitigation strategies to prevent such catastrophic interruption of seawater desalination from oil contamination is vital to the State of Qatar. She said that their team at QEERI is actively involved in developing the science and technological solutions to make the desalination process efficient and more effective.

In line with Qatar National Vision 2030, the QEERI Water Center conducts research in water resources, water desalination, wastewater treatment and reuse. QEERI Executive Director Dr Marc Vermeersch, said their primary objective is to help Qatar tackle its grand challenges in energy, water and environment, and this they do through cutting-edge research, development and innovation. He said that providing customised technological solutions to challenges facing Qatar is a top priority.

QEERI research

The QEERI Water Center Oil and Water Separation Team includes accomplished researchers such as Engineer Radee Al Rewailly, Dr Jayaprakash Saththasivam, Dr Oluwaseun Ogunbiyi and Dr Zhaoyang Liu. The team performs design, experimental and modelling studies with support from Dr Said Ahzi from the Computational-Materials and Processes Center.

Their focus is the development of novel materials, components and processes for the mitigation of oil fouling in various industries, including municipal drinking water production and the oil and gas sectors.

Their years of continued research and development has culminated in multiple patents for oil/water separation technology, which cover key markets including the United States, China, the European Union, and the Middle East.

Their most recent research has just been published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Pollution Research. The paper ‘Efficient Oil/Saltwater Separation Using a Highly Permeable and Fouling-resistant All-Inorganic Nanocomposite Membrane’, is based on Engineer Rand Elshorafa’s PhD research work and her experimental studies at QEERI.

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