A group of scientists pose for a group photo.
Courtesy of Kamcev Lab

Each month, The Michigan Daily’s research beat publishes a feature on one University of Michigan Laboratory to highlight the efforts of the lab team and the importance of research. The following article is the lab spotlight for the month of September 2023. 

This edition of The Michigan Daily’s lab spotlight features the Kamcev Research Lab. Directed by Jovan Kamcev, assistant professor of chemical engineering and macromolecular science and engineering, the lab examines polymeric materials for a variety of applications, such as energy storage or water treatment. 

The Lab 

Researchers in the Kamcev Lab focus on membrane science and engineering, or the development of technology used to separate some materials from others. These technologies are called membranes because they function much like the biological films used in cells, Kamcev told The Michigan Daily. 

“The lab focuses on materials that are called membranes,” Kamcev said. “And these are polymeric membranes. So they’re kind of like flat sheets, very thin polymeric materials that allow one to separate different components. They’re very often used in separation applications … you want to extract something selectively from that mixture, then you can use a membrane-based process.”

Located in the North Campus Research Complex, the lab provides a space for the team to conduct research and experiment with new materials. The lab has capacity for the team to make their own membranes and have their own small-scale water treatment plant.

The Research 

The Kamcev Research Lab primarily experiments with polymeric materials, with a focus on water treatment and energy storage technologies because of their relevance to the current moment. 

“I knew that water and energy are kind of the big issues that are going to be here for decades to come,” Kamcev said. “And so I found that that’s a good area to work in. So I started studying membranes there.”

Kamcev established this lab in the fall of 2019 after a conversation with an advisor, in which he said they discussed the importance of membrane technologies. 

“There are other technologies for separations (and) applications, but membranes are proven to be the least energy intensive for a lot of applications,” Kamcev said. “And so that’s why people have kind of gravitated towards membrane materials.”

Kamcev said membrane technology is commonly used in these areas of work because of its energy efficiency.

“Membranes are proven to be the least energy intensive for a lot of applications, which is why people have gravitated towards using membrane materials,” Kamcev said. “The reason that (our lab) studies membranes is because we are motivated by problems, and access to clean water is one of the biggest problems for humanity in general.” 

Kamcev said the lab combines advanced chemistry principles with his background knowledge in membranes to create improved membrane technologies.  

“Our team is trying to develop these structure property relationships and better understand membranes at the molecular level to hopefully then make better membranes for energy and water technologies,” Kamcev said. 

David Kitto, doctoral candidate in chemical engineering and a researcher in the lab, spoke with The Daily about the water processing capabilities of membrane technology. Specifically, Kitto said membranes can be directly applied to desalination, which involves separating minerals and salt out from seawater and wastewater. 

“(The lab is) demonstrating that you can get to the point where you don’t need to have wastewater, you can just sell people salt, and then recover about as much water as possible out of this,” Kitto said. “So that’s a huge impact for zero liquid discharge.”

Kitto also spoke about some of the energy storage possibilities that require membranes, such as hydrogen-based energy.

“From hydrogen energy — both storing energy as hydrogen fuel, or consuming hydrogen fuel in your car, or wherever else you need it — those need an ion exchange membrane,” Kitto said. 

Gregory Reimonn, doctoral candidate in macromolecular science and engineering, told The Daily much of his work in the lab is centered on flow batteries, a type of battery that relies heavily on membranes. 

“What are the big knobs that we can turn to make a membrane better?” Reimonn said. “We’ve seen interesting results where we’ve actually shown that it doesn’t really matter too much whether the charge of a membrane is positive or negative — (it) doesn’t really change how well the membrane performs.”

The Impact 

Kitto said the projects he and Reimonn are working on represent some of the most promising applications of this technology.

“We’re hoping that the hydrogen energy storage and the brine desalination zero liquid discharge are going to be the main use cases for some of these membranes that I’ve been making,” Kitto said.

Kamcev said he believes improved water purification technology has the potential to create meaningful real-world impacts. 

“I think the majority of the world experiences water scarcity at some point throughout the year,” Kamcev said. “So one is water purification, membrane technologies today kind of dominate that landscape globally.” 

Kitto said membrane technology research may also open doors in the realm of sustainable energy development. 

“From hydrogen energy, both storing energy as hydrogen fuel or consuming hydrogen fuel in your car, or for whatever else you would need, those all need ion exchange members, which is what we are working on and we are really excited about,” Kitto said. 

Daily Staff Reporters Emma Lapp and Amer Goel can be reached at emmalapp@umich.edu  and amergoel@umich.edu.