Water treatment Europe Membranes

The perfect storm for ceramic membranes?

Tuesday, 22 February 2022

Ahead of our upcoming TECH DIVE, Aquatech Online speaks to renowned membrane guru Dr Graeme Pearce about whether now is the time for ceramic membranes?

The perfect storm

“The time has come" for ceramic membrane adoption by utilities to be accelerated, according to water technology expert.

Ceramic membranes have been knocking at the door of the water sector for the last decade, but now, the time has come for ceramic membranes to enter the utility market.

"The perfect storm conditions have arrived," said Dr Graeme Pearce, principal at Membrane Consultancy Associates.

Speaking to Aquatech Online, he said: "It's long been predicted, but I think it's taken a while for the commercial position to become settled enough for people to have the confidence in ceramic membranes."

There have been a number of blockers stopping ceramic membranes from taking the water sector by storm, from incredibly high price points compared to polymeric membranes to a largely unconvinced utility sector not wanting to be the first through the breach.

"The perfect storm conditions have arrived."

Until now, ceramic membranes have been slowly making a name for themselves in the industrial space, as well as reverse osmosis (RO) pre-treatment.

"The prices are levelling out. There is still a big price addition for ceramics, but you are getting significantly higher fluxes."

"The higher price of the ceramic tends to balance out with the higher level of performance. I think ceramic membranes and polymeric membranes are on a level playing field in comparison. We are beginning to see an equalisation."

The interview followed the news that Nijhuis Saur Industries acquired ceramic membrane specialist PWNT to help scale the operations.

History repeating itself

"I think the scepticism now is about cost," Dr Pearce says.

"The industry still needs to convince itself that the economics of the ceramics really do either compare with or surpass the economics of polymerics."

When polymeric membranes arrived in the mid-1990s, they also faced similar headwinds to ceramics today. Yet the uncertainty was more anchored towards questions on robustness, compared to cost.

"When polymeric membranes were starting to be considered in drinking water, there were only a few product champions,” added Pearce.

"Scepticisms started to grow about whether polymerics would last, whether they would break and whether there would be integrity issues."

"History is repeating itself.”

Just under three decades ago, there was a degree of proving the scepticism wrong, as Dr Pearce explained.

"Normally, I give a figure of 85 per cent of polymeric plants which are successful and do not have issues.

“The other 15 per cent are made up of five per cent which could be deemed to be moderately successful, another five per cent causing operational headaches and the final five per cent having massive issues with their facilities."

As a result, these small failings gave sceptics the necessary firepower to question the use of polymeric membranes. And yet, almost three decades later, polymerics now dominate the membrane sector.

This does raise the question, are we seeing history repeat itself with ceramic membranes?

"History is repeating itself. The sceptics are not complaining about the longevity of ceramics membranes, it's about the cost and whether the investment is worthwhile."

Cost the final hurdle

It would appear then that the cost of ceramic membranes, compared to polymerics, have been

In order for ceramic membranes to finally achieve greater uptake by water utilities, it will ambassadors – ideally utility end users - to help convince the sceptics.

"For ceramics to take over, we need a general case,” added Pearce. “So that even the sceptics, even the pro polymeric people and even the people that do not realise that they had a problem will say 'we might as well go with ceramics.'"

"They are now cost-competitive and they have longevity and stability.”

"But we need more than one credible drinking water supplier. You've got to have two. Otherwise, the industry in the UK and anywhere else will not accept ceramic membranes.

"We have the product champions in the community who are going to drive a number of projects. The same thing happened with polymerics. It seems then that it is only a matter of time for ceramics.”

- Stay tuned for our upcoming TECH DIVE into ceramic membranes that will examine the current landscape, key players and where the industry could be heading next.

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