GSRA Sponsored Project Aims to Improve Qatar’s Water Security
Qatar is considered one of the most water-stressed countries due to a scarcity of water resources which is exacerbated by the high consumption rates of water which are increasing day by day. To meet its growing needs, Qatar relies on water mainly from desalination and by recycling water and groundwater, processes which are both very expensive.
Therefore, suitable solutions must be developed to align consumption and supply sustainably over time while protecting water quality. Several technologies have been developed over the years to provide alternative water supplies by wastewater treatment and desalination. These technologies include distillation, membrane filtration, adsorption, and ion exchange.
Among these technologies, membrane filtration processes have gained wide acceptance due to their low cost, high efficiency, and ease of operation. Despite the various advantages of membrane technology, membrane fouling remains an obstacle and a major challenge facing these membrane-based processes. Fouling is a phenomenon where the contaminants in the water accumulate on the membrane surface resulting in a flux decline and reducing the permeate quality. Therefore, developing antifouling membranes for desalination and water treatment purposes has become an important research objective.
Aiming to bridge this gap, a QNRF’s Graduate Student Research Award (GSRA) scholar has developed novel membranes for wastewater treatment with high flux and superior fouling resistance. Dr. Abedalkader Alkhouzaam, then a PhD student at Qatar University, recently completed his dissertation titled "Bio-Inspired Fabrication of Ultrafiltration Membranes incorporating Polydopamine Functionalized Graphene Oxide Nanoparticles," (GSRA4-1-0504-17043) which addresses one of the main challenges Qatar faces in the area of water security.
The study proposes a world-class capability in the field of nano-functionalized membranes as applied to the wastewater treatment sector. Graphene oxide-functionalized membranes have been chosen as the overall research theme owing to their unique and tunable properties. However, GO nanosheets in their pristine phase tend to aggregate in the membrane pores which can decrease the driving force of the filtration or increase resistance against the transportation of the permeating solvent during the filtration.
Therefore, the first phase of the research focused on the enhancement of GO properties to produce a bio-inspired polydopamine-functionalized GO nanosheet (rGO-PDA). Owing to the unique properties of PDA and the abundant functional groups on its surface, the functionalized nanosheets showed higher hydrophilicity (affinity for water) and dispersibility in various solvents compared to the pristine GO nanosheets. The second phase of the research then focused on the use of rGO-PDA nanosheets as membrane nanofillers by embedding them in one of the conventional polymer membranes being used in the water treatment sector.
The results of the study showed a significant enhancement in the membrane's performance with the addition of rGO-PDA. The water flux was enhanced by approximately 80% with an excellent removal efficiency of several contaminants (proteins, organic matter, and dyes) making these membranes efficient in treating different types of wastewaters. Moreover, the hybrid membranes exhibited excellent fouling resistance against various foulants compared to the pristine membrane. Furthermore, the results also demonstrated that the use of the new nanomaterial is not limited to the membranes investigated in this study and it can serve as nanofillers in different membrane materials and for different purposes.
The outcomes of this research are expected to be of great benefit to the water treatment sector locally and globally. Owing to its impactful outcomes, this work has produced four papers in high-impact journals and received several awards inside and outside Qatar. For his project, Dr. Alkhouzaam won the Best Presentation Award in the International Conference on Wastewater Treatment, Water Cycle and Water Pollution (ICWTWCWP 2019, Istanbul). In 2018, he won the first prize for the Advancement of Post-Graduate Education in Qatar by ORYX GTL; Outstanding Achievement Award for Post-Graduate students 2018; and third place for the Best Postgraduate Researcher award 2017 in My Gateway to Research held by the Department of Chemical Engineering at Qatar University.
Moreover, the outcomes of this study also provide insights on developing other types of membrane nanofillers. This project has paved the way for the synthesis of other novel nanofillers and is now being disclosed as a patent. In the future, Dr. Alkhouzaam plans to further develop the outcomes of his study and to contribute to the creation of a thriving research culture in Qatar.