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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published online by De Gruyter May 23, 2022

Rejection of trace organic compounds by membrane processes: mechanisms, challenges, and opportunities

Oranso T. Mahlangu ORCID logo, Machawe M. Motsa, Thabo I. Nkambule and Bhekie B. Mamba


This work critically reviews the application of various membrane separation processes (MSPs) in treating water polluted with trace organic compounds (TOrCs) paying attention to nanofiltration (NF), reverse osmosis (RO), membrane bioreactor (MBR), forward osmosis (FO), and membrane distillation (MD). Furthermore, the focus is on loopholes that exist when investigating mechanisms through which membranes reject/retain TOrCs, with the emphasis on the characteristics of the model TOrCs which would facilitate the identification of all the potential mechanisms of rejection. An explanation is also given as to why it is important to investigate rejection using real water samples, especially when aiming for industrial application of membranes with novel materials. MSPs such as NF and RO are prone to fouling which often leads to lower permeate flux and solute rejection, presumably due to cake-enhanced concentration polarisation (CECP) effects. This review demonstrates why CECP effects are not always the reason behind the observed decline in the rejection of TOrCs by fouled membranes. To mitigate for fouling, researchers have often modified the membrane surfaces by incorporating nanoparticles. This review also attempts to explain why nano-engineered membranes have not seen a breakthrough at industrial scale. Finally, insight is provided into the possibility of harnessing solar and wind energy to drive energy intensive MSPs. Focus is also paid into how low-grade energy could be stored and applied to recover diluted draw solutions in FO mode.

Corresponding author: Oranso T. Mahlangu, College of Engineering, Science and Technology, Institute for Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability, University of South Africa, Florida Science Campus, Roodepoort 1709, South Africa, E-mail:

Funding source: University of South Africa


The authors would like to thank all anonymous reviewers and editors for their insightful comments and suggestions on revising and improving the quality of the review.

  1. Research funding: This work was funded by the Institute for Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability, University of South Africa.

  2. Conflict of interest statement: The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest regarding this article.


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Received: 2021-06-10
Accepted: 2022-03-27
Published Online: 2022-05-23

© 2022 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston