A physical impact of organic fouling layers on bacterial adhesion during nanofiltration

R. Heffernan, O. Habimana, A. J.C. Semião, H. Cao, A. Safari, E. Casey*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Organic conditioning films have been shown to alter properties of surfaces, such as hydrophobicity and surface free energy. Furthermore, initial bacterial adhesion has been shown to depend on the conditioning film surface properties as opposed to the properties of the virgin surface. For the particular case of nanofiltration membranes under permeate flux conditions, however, the conditioning film thickens to form a thin fouling layer. This study hence sought to determine if a thin fouling layer deposited on a nanofiltration membrane under permeate flux conditions governed bacterial adhesion in the same manner as a conditioning film on a surface. Thin fouling layers (less than 50μm thick) of humic acid or alginic acid were formed on Dow Filmtec NF90 membranes and analysed using Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), confocal microscopy and surface energy techniques. Fluorescent microscopy was then used to quantify adhesion of Pseudomonas fluorescens bacterial cells onto virgin or fouled membranes under filtration conditions.It was found that instead of adhering on or into the organic fouling layer, the bacterial cells penetrated the thin fouling layer and adhered directly to the membrane surface underneath. Contrary to what surface energy measurements of the fouling layer would indicate, bacteria adhered to a greater extent onto clean membranes (24±3% surface coverage) than onto those fouled with humic acid (9.8±4%) or alginic acid (7.5±4%). These results were confirmed by AFM measurements which indicated that a considerable amount of energy (10-7J/μm) was dissipated when attempting to penetrate the fouling layers compared to adhering onto clean NF90 membranes (10-15J/μm). The added resistance of this fouling layer was thusly seen to reduce the number of bacterial cells which could reach the membrane surface under permeate conditions.This research has highlighted an important difference between fouling layers for the particular case of nanofiltration membranes under permeate flux conditions and surface conditioning films which should be considered when conducting adhesion experiments under filtration conditions. It has also shown AFM to be an integral tool for such experiments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)118-128
Number of pages11
JournalWater Research
StatePublished - 17 Sep 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Atomic force microscopy
  • Bacterial adhesion
  • Fouling layer
  • Nanofiltration
  • Natural organic matter


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