Membrane scaling and flux decline during fertiliser-drawn forward osmosis desalination of brackish groundwater

Sherub Phuntsho, Fezeh Lotfi, Seungkwan Hong, Devin L. Shaffer, Menachem Elimelech, Ho Kyong Shon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

106 Citations (Scopus)


Fertiliser-drawn forward osmosis (FDFO) desalination has been recently studied as one feasible application of forward osmosis (FO) for irrigation. In this study, the potential of membrane scaling in the FDFO process has been investigated during the desalination of brackish groundwater (BGW). While most fertilisers containing monovalent ions did not result in any scaling when used as an FO draw solution (DS), diammonium phosphate (DAP or (NH4)2HPO4) resulted in significant scaling, which contributed to severe flux decline. Membrane autopsy using scanning electron microscopy (SEM), energy-dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDS), and x-ray diffraction (XRD) analysis indicated that the reverse diffusion of DAP from the DS to the feed solution was primarily responsible for scale formation during the FDFO process. Physical cleaning of the membrane with deionised water at varying crossflow velocities was employed to evaluate the reversibility of membrane scaling and the extent of flux recovery. For the membrane scaled using DAP as DS, 80-90% of the original flux was recovered when the crossflow velocity for physical cleaning was the same as the crossflow velocity during FDFO desalination. However, when a higher crossflow velocity or Reynolds number was used, the flux was recovered almost completely, irrespective of the DS concentration used. This study underscores the importance of selecting a suitable fertiliser for FDFO desalination of brackish groundwater to avoid membrane scaling and severe flux decline.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)172-182
Number of pages11
JournalWater Research
Publication statusPublished - 2014 Jun 15

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors acknowledge the financial support of the National Centre of Excellence in Desalination Australia , which is funded by the Australian Government through the National Urban Water and Desalination Plan .


  • Brackish groundwater
  • Desalination
  • Forward osmosis
  • Inorganic fouling
  • Membrane scaling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Ecological Modelling
  • Pollution
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Civil and Structural Engineering


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