the hopes borne by the pre-industrial Waterland project

While France is experiencing unprecedented episodes of drought and the scarcity of water is now a very concrete reality, the treatment of seawater offers promising prospects. Scientists from the European Membrane Institute in Montpellier have been working for ten years on innovative membrane technology for water desalination.

“Reverse osmosis is one of the most widely used techniques for water desalination, summarizes Mihail Barboiu, CNRS research director at the European Membrane Institute of the University of Montpellier. Most of the membranes used today consist of artificial water channels inserted into lipid layers. But on a large scale, their performance is not satisfactory. By working on ion channels, we discovered a fairly similar structure and developed a hybrid strategy combining, within the same structure, a polyamide matrix and water channels. We were the first in the world to work on this technology, which surpasses conventional desalination membranes. »

12% energy saving

Patented in 2019, this technology allows a flow 75% higher than that observed with industrial membranes and a reduction of at least 12% in the energy required.

Other countries like the USA or China are working on this subject but for the moment, the research director says: “the only membrane with artificial channels is here”.

In order to be able to develop a manufacturing process for these biomimetic membranes, Mihail Barboiu, surrounded by a team of six people, launched Waterland in September 2021, a prototype pre-industrial factory built on the campus of the School of Chemistry. The project has been the subject of an investment of 200,000 euros from the CNRS, the European Membrane Institute (IEM) and the French industrial group Alcen.

“The membranes are first tested on a laboratory scale before being tested on a larger scale on the Galéra site. In five months, we have made dazzling progress and we are still optimizing the process », welcomes, Omar Samahi, post-doctoral fellow.

To obtain a membrane over several square meters, it was necessary to switch to a multi-channel configuration with maximum density to absorb the pressures. A lot of work has been done on the porosity in order to obtain a more permeable membrane.

Today, Waterland is on its fifth prototype, this latest version incorporating a heating column to evacuate humidity. Overall cost of operations: 80,000 euros.

“We are now able to produce membranes of satisfactory lengths”, says Patrice Montels, workshop manager and engineer at IEM.

Next objective: to put the membranes in cartridges.

Looking for investors

To move forward faster, Mihail Barboiu is considering a partnership with industrial players, such as Veolia, to test, for a year or two, around twenty cartridges in real conditions.

“This will allow us to make changes or improvements. Then we will have to find an investor for the purchase of industrial machinery, with an estimated investment of between 1 and 2 million euros”.

If the CNRS research director already has leads on investors, he does not rule out the creation of a company or the option of a European program.

Provided of course that manufacturers show their interest in this technology. Today there are around 17,000 desalination plants in the world, but very few in France (barely twenty).

Far from being a panacea, desalination is generally costly and energy-intensive. Three times more permeable, the technology developed by CNRS scientists could revolutionize the sector and, why not, spread to the medical community for the manufacture of vaccines from ultra-pure water, or in microelectronics.

Still, between the scientific, technical and economic parts, there are three worlds… often very distinct.