Companies active in the pharmaceutical and fine chemicals industries can turn to VITO for tailor-made advice and solutions for highly efficient and economical separation techniques. With its functionalized ceramic membranes, VITO has unique technology in house to purify waste flows, recover valuable components or remove impurities.

Around ten years ago, VITO and UAntwerpen began to explore a new field of expertise: functionalized ceramic membranes. These are conventional membranes (composed of ceramics) used for separation, purification and fractionation processes, but onto which specific chemical molecules are ‘grafted’ that increase their efficiency and ‘functionality’. As a result, the membranes can be made more hydrophobic (more water-repellent), have certain chemical affinities, or can be specifically anti-fouling. The unique ‘functionalized membranes’ technology has been patented by VITO/UAntwerpen and registered under the name FunMem®.


One interesting application of FunMem® is removing impurities from pharmaceutical process flows in order to purify the so-called active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). Another is separating catalysts from the production process so that they can be recycled. For example, VITO has succeeded in recovering the valuable precious metal palladium, a metal that is commonly used in catalysts for the (fine) chemicals industry.

Scaling up

In recent years, VITO has been working on scaling up its membrane technology. In 2015, this resulted in a new production method for long, multi-channel membrane tubes (1.20 metres long). Initially, this method was still rather traditional – we produced them manually in a glove box. The study was part of the CERAWATER project, which was funded by the European Commission. As the next step in the scaling-up process, the membrane researchers have now also increased production capacity. For example, VITO now has an installation in which five membrane tubes can be produced (‘functionalized’) at the same time. The installation is fully automated, meaning that manual interventions are drastically reduced. One push of a button is enough to start the whole process, from the pre-treatment of the ceramic tubes through to the chemical treatment and the final quality control. But the researchers aren’t done just yet: the next challenge is to reduce production time. It currently takes around four days to roll out five finished membranes. There's room for improvement here. We are currently optimising the production process so that production times of less than 24 hours can be achieved.

Pharmaceutical processes

In the meantime, VITO's functionalized membranes have been bought by a variety of companies that work with fine chemical processes, from the separation of acetone in edible oils to the purification of bio-aromatics from lignin (see actions). In particular, the technology is opening up opportunities for the pharmaceutical industry, which often struggles to make its separation processes more sustainable, efficient and energy efficient. Our membranes have proven not to leach (not to release impurities into the process), which is extremely important for use in processes where purity is crucial. VITO is already working towards an FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval dossier that will allow and regulate the use of this type of membrane in the heart of pharmaceutical production processes. We are asking these companies to come to us with all their questions about separation processes.


VITO is already working intensively with the pharmaceutical sector, more specifically in a project studying the purification of solvent-rich aqueous side streams, with the aim of recovering them and possibly recycling rather than incinerating them, which is what currently happens. The pilot project, named Sumens (funded by CATALISTI), kicked off at the end of last year and is supported by Janssen Pharmaceutica and Ajinomoto Bio-Pharma Services (formerly Omnichem).


VITO's membrane technology can help companies to make substantial savings on their energy consumption, thus reducing their CO2 emissions. This is illustrated by the example of IOI Loders Croklaan, a Dutch manufacturer of edible oils. VITO developed a ceramic membrane for the company that can efficiently separate acetone from oils, as part of the EEMBAR project (ISPT Nederland). This separation is necessary because it is vital for the end product to be free of any traces of acetone. Previously, acetone separation was carried out using an energy-intensive distillation process. Separation using membranes is a non-thermal process, which requires very little energy.

Because the VITO membranes are ceramic, they are not attacked by the acetone and remain robust and stable. The pilot plant at the IOI Loders Croklaan factory has been running at full speed for over two years now. In cooperation with VITO, the company is now looking at scaling up further, to implement the same process in its other factories too.

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