For over 50 years, membrane research at UNSW has informed and guided the engineering of membrane processes; improving the outcomes of water quality, treatment and sanitation in Australia and overseas. Now this research is being implemented to secure water supply for millions of people facing water scarcity from climate change.

From humble beginnings as a modest research-group, to playing part in the evolution of a multi-billion-dollar industry, the Chemical Engineering team at UNSW have focused their efforts on membrane technology to benefit both industry and community alike. “In the early 1990s, we were one of a handful of academic membrane research centres globally,” says Professor Tony Fane. “Unlike industry, our work was publicly available and aimed at generic problems that we could help solve.”

One of the team’s largest contributions was research in the early 1980s, fronted by the late Professor Chris Fell, which led to the development and patent of an unconventional but cost-effective membrane filter made of nylon to treat wastewater. This technology led to the creation of a spin-off company, Memtec Limited, which grew to become one of the major membrane water treatment companies in the world.

While Memtec now operates as Memcor, part of Du Pont Water, with headquarters in Windsor NSW, the UNSW team’s research also led to the formation of the UNESCO Centre for Membrane Science and Technology, which has trained over 100 ‘membraneologists’ working in Australia and overseas.

“One of the many legacies of UNSW is the training of graduates and postgraduates that work across the industry. At Memcor - but also in the water utilities, consulting companies and contractors that have delivered these plants.” - Professor Greg Leslie.

The team’s research has also come to life via projects like The Groundwater Replacement System (GWRS) in Orange County California, which secured water supply for three million people.

The world’s largest purification system for indirect potable use, the GWRS implements a modular filtration system created by researchers at UNSW, which filters water at the location it is consumed – thereby removing obstacles such as distance and water transport for those who need it most.

Making a Nylon membrane (1983).​ L to R.​ Prof. Tony Fane​, Prof Hans Coster​, Prof. Chris Fell

The GRWS continues to use the membranes created in Windsor NSW, taking highly treated wastewater that would have previously been discharged into the Pacific Ocean and purifying it to create high-quality water that meets all drinking water standards.

The success of the GWRS project not only drought-proofed water-supply to the area, but provided the global water industry with the confidence to use membrane technology for water recycling, which has since been replicated and applied across the US, Signapore, Australia and other countries.

As the research continues, the end goal is to ensure water supply through membranes can become increasingly affordable and efficient, which would not only open a host of new opportunities for those in regional and remote Australia, but also help adaptation to climate change throughout the country. “As we get into water scarcity, any incremental development in membrane technology can help,” explains Prof. Fane.

“If you can desalinate and re-use, you effectively drought-proof yourself. The economics are allowing more and more people to do this.”

As Australia’s best engineering faculty turns 75, there are just as many reasons why we’ve earned that title. Discover new stories weekly, celebrating the successes that have enabled progress for all.