For the first time, the effects of free volume in thin-film composite (TFC) membranes on membrane performance for forward osmosis and pressure retarded osmosis (PRO) processes were studied in this work. To manipulate the free volume in the TFC layer, a bulky monomer (i.e., p-xylylenediamine) was blended into the interfacial polymerization and methanol immersion was conducted to swell up the TFC layer. Results from positron annihilation lifetime spectroscopy (PALS) show that p-xylylenediamine blending and methanol induced swelling enlarge and broaden the free volume cavity. In addition, the performance of TFC membranes consisting of different free volumes were examined in terms of water flux, reverse salt flux, and power density under high pressure PRO operations. The TFC-B-5 membrane (i.e., a TFC membrane made of blending monomers) with a moderate free volume shows the highest power density of 6.0 W/m2 at 9 bar in comparison of TFC membranes with other free volumes. After PRO operations, it is found that the free volume of TFC layers decreases due to high pressure compression, but membrane transport properties in terms of water and salt permeability increase. Interestingly, the membrane performance in terms of resistance against high pressures and power density stay the same. A slow positron beam was used to investigate the microstructure changes of the TFC layer after PRO operations. Compaction in free volume occurs and the TFC layer becomes thinner under PRO tests but no visible defects can be observed by both scanning electronic microscopy and PALS. © 2013 American Institute of Chemical Engineers AIChE J, 59: 4749–4761, 2013
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