Economic Ceramic Ultrafiltration for Highly Impaired Water

Jan 16th 2020

Key Takeaways

  • Ultrafiltration (UF) is widely used in water treatment to filter out particles within a size range of about 0.01 to 1 µm, e.g. suspended solids, bacteria, viruses, oils and grease.
  • The vast majority of UF systems employ polymeric membranes, especially in municipal water treatment. However, polymeric UF membranes are restricted in their field of application. Polymeric membranes are less reliable in harsh chemical environments, with slurries that can plug the membrane elements, and when performing oil & grease removal.
  • Ceramic ultrafiltration membranes open the UF application range to the above severe conditions and provide a polymeric ultrafiltration alternative for the treatment of highly turbid water. However, they have historically been viewed as expensive.
  • Recently ceramic membranes have become more widely available at lower costs. In addition, companies such as Saltworks have developed robust process and control systems to keep the ceramic membranes clean. This opens opportunities to employ ceramic UF to filter highly impaired waters where polymeric UF cannot cope.
  • This article introduces a new type of ceramic membrane system and explains how it opens the application range. An example of treatment of oil and grease in produced water is provided.
Photo of a pond of highly turbid produced water containing oils and grease in the oil and gas industry
XtremeUF: An ultrafiltration solution for highly impaired industrial waters

What Do I Need to Know About Ultrafiltration?

Ultrafiltration (UF) uses a pressurized membrane to achieve TSS (total suspended solids) removal in wastewater within a size exclusion range of about 0.01 to 1 µm. This is a critical regime for the screening of particulate, bacteria, viruses, oils and grease. UF is therefore an essential step for many processes, including municipal wastewater treatment and pre-treatment for reverse osmosis.

Polymeric and Ceramic Membranes

The majority of UF membrane installations are polymeric, which imposes some critical technical limits. Operation at high temperatures, exposure to high/low pH, high TSS concentration, or oils and grease may restrict the longevity and performance of polymeric membranes or make them unsuitable altogether. A typical polymeric membrane module consists of thin hollow fibres (imagine a handful of hollowed-out spaghetti) with flow channels that are 0.2–3 mm in diameter. Failure of polymeric ultrafiltration membranes occurs when these fibres are damaged or blocked, which is especially likely in severe applications.


Ceramic UF membranes are an ultrafiltration solution in the treatment of a wide range of highly impaired wastewaters, such as highly turbid waters, oil & gas produced waters, or slurries. The usage of ceramic membranes has historically been restricted to especially challenging conditions, largely on the grounds of cost. Recent advances in ceramic membrane manufacturing and availability mean that they are now a commodity item, widely available at a lower cost than in the past. For challenging waters, ceramic membranes can now be a much more viable economic choice.


A typical ceramic membrane is composed of a sintered material such as alumina or zirconia (imagine a porous, hard rock that can take a real beating). Unlike polymeric materials, ceramics are stable at high temperatures, will not swell and deform in the presence of oil and grease, and can repeatedly withstand harsh chemical cleans. In addition, commodity ceramic membranes are extruded with flow channel openings of 2–8 mm in diameter, making them less susceptible to blockage in high TSS applications. A ceramic membrane is highly robust and—with the correct automated processes—can recover from performance degradation to maintain operations.

Photo of a polymeric ultrafiltration membrane
Photo of a ceramic ultrafiltration membrane

Polymeric (left) and ceramic (right) membranes

Keeping Ceramic Membranes Clean

To keep ceramic membranes operating at their best, it is important to employ a combination of automated-cleaning methods. The first defense is to achieve high crossflow, minimizing the stagnant zone or boundary layer near the membrane surface. Higher crossflow, or velocity at the membrane surface, will wash particulate away. There are two crossflow velocities: operational and forward flush—whereby velocity is dramatically increased for a short duration by 2-3× to wash away debris. This can require very high flow rates and energy consumption.


Saltworks has developed a novel hydraulic system that minimizes energy consumption and back pressure while maximizing velocity at the membrane surface. Our forward flushes are done in a smart way, to increase the crossflow to wash away any particulate while minimizing the operational impact on the system.


Backwashing is another cleaning method that incorporates hydraulic pressure to push particulate off the membrane surface. Chemical cleaning is comparatively expensive and used less frequently. Nevertheless, we build in and automate all of these systems.


Saltworks’ automated XtremeUF system performs cleaning in an intelligent and responsive manner, based on continuous online monitoring of membrane performance. The system selects from multiple levels of cleaning cycles to enable the membrane to maintain flux without irreversibly fouling. We clean only when and how it is necessary. This maintains performance and uptime while minimizing energy consumption.

3D rendered model of a skidded XtremeUF ceramic ultrafiltration plant
Our skidded XtremeUF ceramic ultrafiltration system


UF performance is quantified by a measure of filtrate flux: a normalized unit that represents the filtrate flow rate per unit area of membrane. The two most common flux units are LMH (L/m2/h) and GFD (gallons/ft2/day). A typical polymeric membrane will operate in the range of 40–80 LMH (24–47 GFD). A ceramic membrane will operate in the range of 50–1000 LMH (29–588 GFD). Pinpointing where an application will fall on this spectrum is a function of particle size, oil/organics type, concentrations and operating pressure. Lower flux applications will require more membrane area and more energy to meet the same nominal filtrate flow rate. Using experimental data, Saltworks has developed a performance map of expected flux ranges for different industries.
Chart showing flux ranges of the xtremeuf ceramic ultrafiltration system
XtremeUF flux ranges for a selection of waters from different industries

The Origins of XtremeUF

Saltworks focuses on treating the toughest waters. We identified a gap for XtremeUF on the basis of three observations: significant demand for treating waters that are too challenging for polymeric UF; reduction in ceramic membrane prices; and an opportunity to apply our know-how to implement intelligent automation in cleaning. To produce an XtremeUF system, we package commodity ceramic UF membranes into well-engineered and intelligently automated systems that can take slurry concentrations to new levels.


We needed XtremeUF to meet the following criteria:

  1. Removal of suspended solids and organics from the most challenging slurries and impacted wastewaters
  2. Concentration and thickening of slurries
  3. Performance maintenance through our proprietary process of intelligently automated cleaning
  4. High tolerance to a wide range of waters and conditions, i.e. turbidity, oils, grease, chemicals, pH and temperature
  5. Corrosion resistance appropriate for high total dissolved solids (TDS) water
Photo of an enhanced oil recovery feed water and filtrate produced from the XtremeUF ceramic ultrafiltration system
XtremeUF feed and filtrate: EOR produced water (left) and filtrate (right)

Choosing the Right Materials for You

The choice of construction materials of pipework and pumps is critically important for the performance and longevity of UF systems. For high chloride waters, corrosion-resistant materials are required. Saltworks selects and incorporates the correct materials for your application. This may include Stainless Steel 316L, Super Duplex Stainless Steel, 6 Moly Alloy, Titanium or even non-metallics such as CPVC. For short-lived or cost-sensitive projects, this may include an economic trade-off to accept some corrosion, especially with known replacements.
Photo of an XtremeUF ceramic ultrafiltration pilot and testing system
One of our XtremeUF testing and piloting systems

What Differentiates XtremeUF from Other UF Processes?

  1. Robust and suitable for a very wide range of applications and operating conditions, Saltworks’ XtremeUF removes suspended solids and organics from the most challenging slurries and impaired wastewaters. XtremeUF can concentrate slurries to up to 10% TSS (100,000 mg/L) with a high tolerance to turbidity, oils, grease, chemicals, pH and temperature.
  2. Using our intelligently automated self-cleaning controls, XtremeUF cleans itself as it operates, maintaining flux with minimum power consumption and operator intervention. We can treat wastewaters that no one else will touch.
  3. Use of commoditized, widely available ceramic membranes enables a wide selection of vendors in the future.
  4. Versatile and adaptable, XtremeUF can be constructed with a variety of corrosion-resistant materials for use with high salinity, or other corrosive water. We offer filtration specifications of 0.01, 0.05, 0.1, 0.5, and 1.2 µm.
Photo of an advanced membrane system pilot at an enhanced oil recovery (EOR) oil and gas site
XtremeUF pilot at an enhanced oil recovery site

Example Application: Preventing Reservoir Plugging in Enhanced Oil Recovery

Enhanced oil recovery (EOR) maximizes reservoir production by injecting water to push out more oil. While reinjecting the water may be desirable, the water becomes saline and picks up particulate during the process. The water may also have been treated with polymers to increase its viscosity, to push out even more oil.


This is a prime example of where traditional polymeric UF membranes do not fit, while ceramic membranes do. XtremeUF can produce clean filtrate—removing oils, grease, polymers and particulate—from produced water. This allows the injection/reinjection of high-quality water into a reservoir undergoing enhanced oil recovery, reducing the potential for reservoir plugging. It can also facilitate the ocean discharge of produced water, by removing all of the above prior to discharge.


Here, you can read about a pilot test where an XtremeUF system was dispatched to a live oil field in an EOR scenario, and its reliable operations were successfully demonstrated.

How Can We Help?

Can XtremeUF help you to meet your targets? Is ceramic or polymeric filtration right for you? Our Saltworks experts are ready to test your water to establish feasibility and indicate site performance. Contact us to learn more.


You can also see our spec sheet to see where polymeric membranes stop and ceramic UF membranes start.

About Saltworks

Saltworks Technologies is a leader in the development and delivery of solutions for industrial wastewater treatment and lithium refining. By working with customers to understand their unique challenges and focusing on continuous innovation, Saltworks’ solutions provide best-in-class performance and reliability. From its headquarters in Richmond, BC, Canada, Saltworks’ team designs, builds, and operates full-scale plants, and offers comprehensive onsite and offsite testing services with its fleet of mobile pilots.

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