Fouling Control of Water Treatment Membranes through Optimal and Sustainable Cleaning Strategies

Membrane fouling – the deposition of organic and inorganic matter on the membrane surface – is a major technical obstacle affecting membrane-based water treatment processes. Fouling results in decreased membrane permeance, selectivity, and shorter useful life due to irreversible fouling. Despite significant efforts to mitigate fouling through, e.g., low-fouling membrane coatings, fouling is inevitable due to the high convective fluxes driving foulants to the membrane surface. Consequently, physical and chemical cleaning strategies, known collectively as cleaning-in-place (CiP) protocols, are indispensable to ensure the sustainable use of membrane technology in water treatment.

Most CiP formulations entail proprietary mixtures of buffered surfactants and chelants that dissolve organic foulants and disperse colloidal metal-organic complexes. Application of CiP solutions often follows manufacturer-specified cleaning conditions, including cross-flow velocity, duration and frequency of cleaning cycles. Such operating conditions, however, are not optimised for specific feed water and foulant chemistries. Moreover, the important influence of CiP solution temperature is often neglected. Solution temperature plays a key role in membrane cleaning, as the interactions responsible for foulant adhesion to the membrane become weaker with rising temperature1. However, the role of temperature in CiP has not been studied systematically. Incomplete knowledge about the influence of operating conditions has hindered development of efficient CiP protocols.

This PhD project will formulate tailored CiP strategies for membranes in Scottish Water (SW) treatment plants. The overarching goal is twofold: i) to identify the CiP temperature resulting in optimal membrane performance; ii) to identify CiP formulations (or mixtures thereof) suitable for application at ambient feed water temperatures (i.e., in cold water). Considering that CiP at SW membrane plants is often carried out at ambient water temperature (Tamb = 10 °C or lower), we anticipate significant improvements in cleaning efficiency if CiP were carried out at slightly higher temperatures. The cost of CiP operations at above-ambient temperatures will be weighed against the improvement in process performance (stemming from mitigated fouling) by a technoeconomic analysis. Lastly, we will perform a life cycle assessment of CiP protocols to identify CiP candidates meeting SW’s sustainability goals.

Training and mentoring

This project offers a unique training opportunity in the fundamentals of colloid and interface science, as well as membrane-based processes for water quality control. The student will be mentored by a supervisory team with complementary expertise, who will provide training in a wide variety of experimental techniques. In addition, the student will acquire industrial experience through a placement at a Scottish Water membrane plant. The exceptional educational and research opportunities afforded by this project include:

• training in state-of-the-art surface and materials characterization techniques;

• close mentoring through weekly meetings;

• close interactions with an interdisciplinary network of researchers at the Institute for Infrastructure and Environment (IIE), and the School of Physics and Astronomy at Edinburgh;

• the opportunity to attend national and international scientific conferences to disseminate your results;

• strong emphasis and support to publish research results in leading scientific journals, which will kickstart your career in academia or industry.

Research Plan. The research programme is structured along the following four work packages (WPs).

WP1. Elucidate cleaning mechanisms and optimal cleaning conditions. To elucidate optimal CiP conditions and identify the most effective formulations for a given foulant matrix, we will investigate the response to shear of foulant layers, the surface tension of the various CiP formulations, as well as foulant adhesiveness to the membranes. To this end, we will employ state-of-the-art rheology, tensiometry, SEM and AFM-based force spectroscopy to gain fundamental insights into CiP mechanisms to optimize efficiency.

WP2. What is the optimal temperature for CiP? To address this question, experiments simulating fouling and cleaning will be carried out in a pilot-scale unit at Edinburgh University (UoE). Experimental insights obtained in our lab will inform experiments in a SW facility, where optimal cleaning strategies will be identified in an industrial-scale system. 

WP3. What is the cost of fouling (and cleaning) in SW plants? We will determine the economic impact of fouling and cleaning in tubular and spiral wound membrane operation.  To this end, we will quantify the costs of CiP, at ambient and above-ambient temperature, and compare them to the cost of fouling.

WP4. Life-cycle assessment (LCA) of membrane CiP protocols. To evaluate the sustainability of CiP protocols, LCA will be conducted on selected formulations showing optimal cleaning performance.


Please note that applications will be reviewed on a continuing basis until the position is filled. Thus, the advert might close for applications before the closing date.

Further Information: 

The University of Edinburgh is committed to equality of opportunity for all its staff and students, and promotes a culture of inclusivity. Please see details here:

Closing Date: 

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Principal Supervisor: 

Assistant Supervisor: 


This is a challenging and ambitious project, requiring a student who is dedicated and enthusiastic about asking, and tackling, fundamental and applied problems. The successful applicant will have been awarded an undergraduate degree at the time of appointment (1st-class or high 2:1, preferably supported by an MSc) in chemical engineering, chemistry, materials science, physics, environmental engineering, or a cognate field. Strong background in physical sciences is required, along with excellent oral and written communication skills in English. Prior research experience in colloid & interface science is highly desirable. While the project is primarily experimental, good or strong quantitative skills are also highly desirable.

Further information on English language requirements for EU/Overseas applicants.


PhD studentships are available every year through a competitive process. The studentships are managed by the School of Engineering, the Institute for Infrastructure and Environment, and the College of Science and Engineering. Some studentships have partial industrial support. Applicants interested in applying for a University-administered award should contact the supervisor ( to begin discussions. Further information on funding options.

Informal Enquiries: 

Dr Santiago Romero-Vargas Castrillon:; Prof Alex Lips: