Membrion announced that it received a $1.1 million grant from the United States Department of Energy (DOE), Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO), through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The Phase II Award will support a two-year project to develop, implement, and optimize a machine vision system to provide real time analytics of Membrion’s roll-to-roll ceramic desalination membrane production line.
A critical component of the DOE’s Water Security Grand Challenge is to address water security and alleviate water stress. Over the next ten years, nearly every state will experience a water shortage, which is caused by climate-driven water shortages and dramatic increases in the demand for clean water. Membrion, a start-up out of Seattle, is on a mission to recycle water that was previously too challenging to reuse. They are doing it using silica to create ceramic desalination membranes.
“Goal One of the Water Security Grand Challenge is to launch desalination technologies that deliver cost-competitive clean water. Membrion’s ceramic desalination membranes are doing just that,” said Greg Newbloom, founder and chief executive officer of Membrion. “Our membranes offer compelling reductions in the cost of water desalination, however, continuing to ramp up mass production of a new technology isn’t a trivial task. This DOE grant will give us the resources needed to mass produce high-quality membranes that work in harsh environments.”
New membrane chemistries can offer compelling reductions to the levelized cost of water desalination. However, the lack of adequate in-line quality control processes is one of the most significant hurdles for new membrane technologies moving from laboratory to commercial production. Membrion’s principal investigator leading the project is Dr. Olivia Lenz, Ph.D., a senior research engineer.
Dr. Lenz guided Membrion through its Phase I SBIR project, screening 50 membrane inspection systems for quality control and inspection methods. The optimal outcome was found in the infrared (IR) thermography technology patented by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). This in-line technology ties temperature to key desalination performance metrics to ensure good membrane quality. NREL’s technology improves over traditional methods because the filter's entire surface area is inspected in seconds, not days.
In Phase II of the SBIR, Membrion will integrate the NREL technology on their production line and develop image processing software that relies upon machine learning and neural networks (integrating artificial intelligence) to inspect the membrane as it passes through and alert the light operator if the membrane is out of specification. Right now, it is a multi-day process to get membrane quality data. Phase II will yield an integrated, live system.
The award benefits not only Membrion, but other manufacturers as well. Since the product can operate in manufacturing facilities with differing environments and conditions, it can be utilized in other facilities and across industries. The award includes a stipend to commercialize the technology and its integrated software.
“We are pleased to collaborate with NREL, to serve the Department of Energy, and to solve one of the biggest challenges of our industry, that of reliable and efficient inspections,” Dr. Lenz stated. “The ideal outcome is to have a robust, in-line, live inspections system for an advanced desalination membrane that can give immediate feedback and can mark areas where further processing can be avoided.”
“Phase II of the inspection system project will allow Membrion to deliver a consistently high-quality desalination membrane at a lower cost. This work will benefit across the membrane industry, allowing manufacturers in other industrial spaces to deliver consistent membrane and filter quality. We can have consistently high quality because we have the assurance that comes from the data,” Dr. Lenz said.