Scientific Research Contributions by Ethan D. Smith

As a scientist, I’ve had the opportunity to conduct and assist with many research studies during my Ph. D. work. Links to the full text publications resulting from these studies are available on this page at no cost.

Functionalized Cellulose Nanocrystal Nanocomposite Membranes with Controlled Interfacial Transport for Improved Reverse Osmosis Performance

Graphical abstract

Published in Nanomaterials in January of 2019, this publication sums up my work with thin film nanocomposite reverse osmosis membranes.


Thin-film nanocomposite membranes (TFNs) are a recent class of materials that use nanoparticles to provide improvements over traditional thin-film composite (TFC) reverse osmosis membranes by addressing various design challenges, e.g., low flux for brackish water sources, biofouling, etc. In this study, TFNs were produced using as-received cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) and 2,2,6,6-Tetramethylpiperidine-1-oxyl (TEMPO)-oxidized cellulose nanocrystals (TOCNs) as nanoparticle additives. Cellulose nanocrystals are broadly interesting due to their high aspect ratios, low cost, sustainability, and potential for surface modification. Two methods of membrane fabrication were used in order to study the effects of nanoparticle dispersion on membrane flux and salt rejection: a vacuum filtration method and a monomer dispersion method. In both cases, various quantities of CNCs and TOCNs were incorporated into a polyamide TFC membrane via in-situ interfacial polymerization. The flux and rejection performance of the resulting membranes was evaluated, and the membranes were characterized via attenuated total reflectance Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (ATR-FTIR), transmission electron microscopy (TEM), and atomic force microscopy (AFM). The vacuum filtration method resulted in inconsistent TFN formation with poor nanocrystal dispersion in the polymer. In contrast, the dispersion method resulted in more consistent TFN formation with improvements in both water flux and salt rejection observed. The best improvement was obtained via the monomer dispersion method at 0.5 wt% TOCN loading resulting in a 260% increase in water flux and an increase in salt rejection to 98.98 ± 0.41% compared to 97.53 ± 0.31% for the plain polyamide membrane. The increased flux is attributed to the formation of nanochannels at the interface between the high aspect ratio nanocrystals and the polyamide matrix. These nanochannels serve as rapid transport pathways through the membrane, and can be used to tune selectivity via control of particle/polymer interactions.

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Mitigation of bidirectional solute flux in forward osmosis via membrane surface coating of zwitterion functionalized carbon nanotubes

Graphical abstract

This work summarizes a collaboration between my research group and the Zhen He research group in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech. Shiqiang Zou and I modified the surface of commercial forward osmosis membranes with carbon nanotubes and observed the effects on reverse and forward solute fluxes.


Forward osmosis (FO) has emerged as a promising membrane technology to yield high-quality reusable water from various water sources. A key challenge to be solved is the bidirectional solute flux (BSF), including reverse solute flux (RSF) and forward solute flux (FSF). Herein, zwitterion functionalized carbon nanotubes (Z-CNTs) have been coated onto a commercial thin film composite (TFC) membrane, resulting in BSF mitigation via both electrostatic repulsion forces induced by zwitterionic functional groups and steric interactions with CNTs. At a coating density of 0.97 g m−2, a significantly reduced specific RSF was observed for multiple draw solutes, including NaCl (55.5% reduction), NH4H2PO4 (83.8%), (NH4)2HPO4 (74.5%), NH4Cl (70.8%), and NH4HCO3 (61.9%). When a synthetic wastewater was applied as the feed to investigate membrane rejection, FSF was notably reduced by using the coated membrane with fewer pollutants leaked to the draw solution, including NH4+-N (46.3% reduction), NO2-N (37.0%), NO3-N (30.3%), K+ (56.1%), PO43−-P (100%), and Mg2+ (100%). When fed with real wastewater, a consistent water flux was achieved during semi-continuous operation with enhanced fouling resistance. This study is among the earliest efforts to address BSF control via membrane modification, and the results will encourage further exploration of effective strategies to reduce BSF.

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