Membrane biofouling is like a bacterial “super glue”, finds Australian study

A benchmarking study has been carried out on the bacterial build up on 14 reverse osmosis membranes at the Perth seawater desalination plant...

Content Dam Ww Online Articles 2017 07 Biofouling

Content Dam Ww Online Articles 2017 07 Biofouling

*Image credit: Wageningen University & Research. The membrane pictured is not from the Murdoch University study.

PERTH, Australia – A benchmarking study has been carried out on the bacterial build up on reverse osmosis membranes at a full-scale desalination plant which could help prevent biofouling in future operations.

Murdoch University PhD student Veena Nagaraj examined the bacteria living on the membranes on 14 reverse osmosis units in the Perth seawater desalination plant in Rockingham after seven years of operation.

She then compared them to the unused units waiting in the plant for installation.

Before reaching the reverse osmosis membranes, the water has already gone through sand filtration, micro-filtration and chemical treatment to try to remove the bacteria/

Nagaraj said: “My study showed that although this pre-treatment wiped out lots of the contaminating bacteria, this just cleared away the competition for a few species to thrive in this environment.”

The study found that there were a few groups of Proteobacteria, which had the characteristics to help them to start the biofouling community on the membrane.

“These groups have a special adhesive structure that helps them attach to the membrane and they exude a slime that acts as a form of superglue,” she said. “After this, there is a number of species that can work as secondary colonisers to build up the community. Together they can protect each other from the harsh conditions.”

Nagaraj is among the first researchers to examine the entire biofouling system of a desalination plant after completion of the operational life-span, with previous studies being conducted in laboratories, side streams or over shorter durations in full-scale plants.

Based on these findings, she has started to examine better treatment options for the biofouling on membranes.

“It is very important for environmental engineers to understand the bacterial life of local seawater when building a desalination plant," she added.

“This work will help us to design better ways to target the most problematic bacteria in biofouling systems and will have significant implications for the industry worldwide.”

Published in a Nature Research Journal, npj Biofilms and Microbiomes, this was the first ever study to examine the bacterial communities present on the unused membranes.

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