Tuning Nanopores in Tubular Ceramic Nanofiltration Membranes with Atmospheric-Pressure Atomic Layer Deposition

Prospects for Pressure-Based In-Line Monitoring of Pore Narrowing

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Atomic layer deposition (ALD) is known for its unparalleled control over layer thickness and 3D conformality and could be the future technique of choice to tailor the pore size of ceramic nanofiltration membranes. However, a major challenge in tuning and functionalizing a multichannel ceramic membrane is posed by its large internal pore volume, which needs to be evacuated during ALD cycling. This may require significant energy and processing time. This study presents a new reactor design, operating at atmospheric pressure, that is able to deposit thin layers in the pores of ceramic membranes. In this design, the reactor wall is formed by the industrial tubular ceramic membrane itself, and carrier gas flows are employed to transport the precursor and co-reactant vapors to the reactive surface groups present on the membrane surface. The layer growth for atmospheric-pressure ALD in this case proceeds similarly to that for state-of-the-art vacuum-based ALD. Moreover, for membrane preparation, this new reactor design has three advantages: (i) monolayers are deposited only at the outer pore mouths rather than in the entire bulk of the porous membrane substrate, resulting in reduced flow resistances for liquid permeation; (ii) an in-line gas permeation method was developed to follow the layer growth in the pores during the deposition process, allowing more precise control over the finished membrane; and (iii) expensive vacuum components and cleanroom environment are eliminated. This opens up a new avenue for ceramic membrane development with nano-scale precision using ALD at atmospheric pressure.