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is a type of physical filtration process where a contaminated fluid is passed through a special pore-sized membrane to separate microorganisms and suspended particles from process liquid. It is commonly used in conjunction with various other separation processes such as ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis to provide a product stream which is free of undesired contaminants.
Microfiltration usually serves as a pre-treatment for other separation processes such as ultrafiltration, and a post-treatment for granular media filtration. The typical particle size used for microfiltration ranges from about 0.1 to 10 µm. In terms of approximate molecular weight these membranes can separate macromolecules of molecular weights generally less than 100,000 g/mol. The filters used in the microfiltration process are specially designed to prevent particles such as, sediment, algae, protozoa or large bacteria from passing through a specially designed filter. More microscopic, atomic or ionic materials such as water (H2O), monovalent species such as Sodium (Na+) or Chloride (Cl−) ions, dissolved or natural organic matter, and small colloids and viruses will still be able to pass through the filter.
The suspended liquid is passed through at a relatively high velocity of around 1–3 m/s and at low to moderate pressures (around 100-400 kPa) parallel or tangential to the semi-permeable membrane in a sheet or tubular form. A pump is commonly fitted onto the processing equipment to allow the liquid to pass through the membrane filter. There are also two pump configurations, either pressure driven or vacuum. A differential or regular pressure gauge is commonly attached to measure the pressure drop between the outlet and inlet streams. See Figure 1 for a general setup.
The most abundant use of microfiltration membranes is in the water, beverage and bio-processing industries. The exit process stream after treatment using a micro-filter has a recovery rate which generally ranges to about 90-98 %.
Perhaps the most prominent use of microfiltration membranes pertains to the treatment of potable water supplies. The membranes are a key step in the primary disinfection of the uptake water stream. Such a stream might contain pathogens such as the protozoa Cryptosporidium and Giardia lamblia which are responsible for numerous disease outbreaks. Both species show a gradual resistance to traditional disinfectants (i.e. chlorine). The use of MF membranes presents a physical means of separation (a barrier) as opposed to a chemical alternative. In that sense, both filtration and disinfection take place in a single step, negating the extra cost of chemical dosage and the corresponding equipment (needed for handling and storage).
Similarly, the MF membranes are used in secondary wastewater effluents to remove turbidity but also to provide treatment for disinfection. At this stage, coagulants (iron or aluminum) may potentially be added to precipitate species such as phosphorus and arsenic which would otherwise have been soluble.
Another crucial application of MF membranes lies in the cold sterilization of beverages and pharmaceuticals. Historically, heat was used to sterilize refreshments such as juice, wine and beer in particular, however a palatable loss in flavor was clearly evident upon heating. Similarly, pharmaceuticals have been shown to lose their effectiveness upon heat addition. MF membranes are employed in these industries as a method to remove bacteria and other undesired suspensions from liquids, a procedure termed as ‘cold sterilization’, which negate the use of heat.
Furthermore, microfiltration membranes are finding increasing use in areas such as petroleum refining, in which the removal of particulates from flue gases is of particular concern. The key challenges/requirements for this technology are the ability of the membrane modules to withstand high temperatures (i.e. maintain stability), but also the design must be such to provide a very thin sheeting (thickness < 2000 angstroms) to facilitate an increase of flux. In addition, the modules must have a low fouling profile and most importantly, be available at a low-cost for the system to be financially viable.
Aside from the above applications, MF membranes have found dynamic use in major areas within the dairy industry, particularly for milk and whey processing. The MF membranes aid in the removal of bacteria and the associated spores from milk, by rejecting the harmful species from passing through. This is also a precursor for pasteurization, allowing for an extended shelf-life of the product. However, the most promising technique for MF membranes in this field pertains to the separation of casein from whey proteins (i.e. serum milk proteins). This results in two product streams both of which are highly relied on by consumers; a casein-rich concentrate stream used for cheese making, and a whey/serum protein stream which is further processed (using ultrafiltration) to make whey protein concentrate. The whey protein stream undergoes further filtration to remove fat in order to achieve higher protein content in the final WPC (Whey Protein Concentrate) and WPI (Whey Protein Isolate) powders.
Other common applications utilizing microfiltration as a major separation process include
Clarification and purification of cell broths where macromolecules are to be separated from other large molecules, proteins, or cell debris.
Other biochemical and bio-processing applications such as clarification of dextrose.
Production of Paints and Adhesives.