Membranes could help tackle microplastics problem in drinking water

2 May 2018

Dr Jenny Lawler, head of the Membrane and Environmental Technologies Group at the DCU Water Institute. Image: DCU

Dr Jenny Lawler of DCU is fascinated by how membranes work, and her research is helping to filter out the bad from the good.

Access to clean water can be considered a fundamental human right but, sadly, the fact is that millions of people across the world – even in so-called ‘wealthy’ countries – don’t have it.

One researcher looking to find ways of overcoming this challenge through the use of efficient filters (membranes) is Dr Jenny Lawler of Dublin City University (DCU).

After finishing her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at University College Dublin (UCD), Lawler went on to do a PhD in membrane separations at DCU.

Then, after a stint in the pharmaceutical sector, she returned to DCU in 2010 as a member of the lecturing staff of the School of Biotechnology.

She now leads the Membrane and Environmental Technologies Group at the DCU Water Institute, outlining her role to last year.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I’ve been fascinated with water and waste management since I was doing my undergrad in chemical engineering at UCD.

Dr Dermot M Malone introduced me to the application of chemical engineering processes to this area, and I was hooked.

I always knew that I’d love to work or research in that area. As a scuba diver and surfer, I’ve always been passionate about water, the marine and our environment.

Shortly afterwards, I met Dr Greg Foley, who was to become my PhD supervisor. He introduced me to the fascinating world of membranes and, as the Spice Girls said, two became one!

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

When I got the chance to return to the School of Biotechnology in DCU as a lecturer in 2010, it was a difficult decision as I loved working in industry, but it was definitely the right decision for me.

Since then, my research has looked at the development of membranes and membrane processes for a variety of different arenas. This includes protein purification for biopharmaceuticals, but my real love is water research.

I am a principal investigator with the DCU Water Institute and my team, the Membrane and Environmental Technologies Group.

Our research ranges from trying to harness energy from distillery wastewater while treating it to make it suitable for discharge, to applying innovative membrane and filtration-based technologies to make abattoir wastewater more sustainable, cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Water is life, and the pressures on global water supplies are continually increasing. It’s vital that we continue to develop sustainable technological solutions to meet this challenge, and membranes play a huge part in that.

Our role as researchers is also to inform Government and influence policy; for example, in the area of legislating for contaminants of emerging concern – such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides, microplastics and phthalates – and in driving for the use of the best available technology in our drinking and wastewater treatment facilities.

As an example, many people will remember the Cryptosporidium outbreak in drinking water in recent years. A simple ultrafiltration membrane that is robust and cheap to run would completely eliminate it.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Part of our focus is on the development of membranes and membrane processes that have clear commercial application, which is probably evident as large companies are interesting in collaborating with us and funding our work.

One problem that has to be addressed is the issue of membrane fouling, where the membrane can become clogged and the flow of clean, treated water slows down.

We recently prepared some nice membranes that are really excellent at removing humic acid from drinking water. Humic acid is found in natural water sources but once you chlorinate the water, as we do in Ireland, it can form harmful trihalomethanes, which can have detrimental health impacts.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

I think the biggest challenge for most researchers is funding. It is a constant battle where the success rate of grant applications is sometimes less than 10pc.

It would be easy to let the rejection bother you and take it personally, but I try to just enjoy writing grants and look on it as a lovely opportunity to read papers and assess the literature and find new niches for our work.

I’ve been working on two grant applications recently, both in different areas, so I’ve had quite a few late nights!

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

When you mention membranes, most people think of cell membranes, if they’ve ever heard of a membrane at all!

Also, even in science, most people assume that membranes only separate on the basis of size. However, we can target contaminant properties to do selective separations, repelling molecules with the same charge as a charged membrane.

In terms of emerging contaminants, people are starting to be aware that some compounds might not be perfectly safe. People are happy when they see ‘BPA free’ but most people aren’t aware that when something is BPA free, it has probably been replaced with BPS, another compound that potentially has similar effects on the human body.

I’d like to increase awareness of this kind of thing, without scaremongering. To that end, we engage with the EPA on public information initiatives, and we are active on social media.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Legislation is currently being developed for endocrine disrupting compounds (such as phthalates) at EU level; this legislation will then apply to Ireland. This will hopefully drive research funding in this direction.

At the moment, we’re building up a picture and developing the analytical techniques, but I’d like to see the research moving into a robust monitoring programme (state-of-the-art internet of things and dynamic sensors and passive sampling) and the requisite technology for removing these contaminants.

Membranes are obviously perfect for this task but we need to rise to this challenge to protect the future of our water and our planet.

Are you a PhD researcher? Can you explain your work in three minutes of engaging chat? Then you could be our next Researchfest champion. Find out how to apply here.