Ultra Filtration (UF)

Ultrafiltration (UF) is a membrane filtration process similar to Reverse Osmosis, using hydrostatic pressure to force water through a semi-permeable membrane. The pore size of the ultrafiltration membrane is usually 103 – 106 Daltons. Ultrafiltration (UF) is a pressure-driven barrier to suspended solids, bacteria, viruses, endotoxins and other pathogens to produce water with very high purity and low silt density.

Ultrafiltration (UF) is a variety of membrane filtration in which hydrostatic pressure forces a liquid against a semi permeable membrane. Suspended solids and solutes of high molecular weight are retained, while water and low molecular weight solutes pass through the membrane. Ultrafiltration is not fundamentally different from reverse osmosis, microfiltration or nanofiltration, except in terms of the size of the molecules it retains.

A membrane or, more properly, a semi permeable membrane, is a thin layer of material capable of separating substances when a driving force is applied across the membrane. Once considered a viable technology only for desalination, membrane processes are increasingly employed for removal of bacteria and other microorganisms, particulate material, and natural organic material, which can impart color, tastes, and odors to the water and react with disinfectants to form disinfection byproducts (DBP).

As advancements are made in membrane production and module design, capital and operating costs continue to decline. The pressure-driven membrane processes discussed in this fact sheet are microfiltration (MF), ultrafiltration (UF), nanofiltration (NF), and reverse osmosis (RO).

Ultrafiltration (UF) is used to remove essentially all colloidal particles (0.01 to 1.0 microns) from water and some of the largest dissolved contaminants. The pore size in a UF membrane is mainly responsible for determining the type and size of contaminants removed. In general, membrane pores range in size from 0.005 to 0.1 micron.

Substances with a molecular weight of 100,000 daltons have a size of about 0.05 microns to about 0.08 microns in diameter. UF membranes are used where essentially all colloidal particles (including most pathogenic organisms) must be removed, but most of the dissolved solids may pass through the membrane without causing problems downstream or in the finished water. UF will remove most turbidity from water.

Ultrafiltration can be used for the removal of particulates and macromolecules from raw water to produce potable water. It has been used to either replace existing secondary (coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation) and tertiary filtration (sand filtration and chlorination) systems employed in water treatment plants or as standalone systems in isolated regions with growing populations. When treating water with high suspended solids, UF is often integrated into the process, utilising primary (screening, flotation, filtration) and some secondary treatments as pre-treatment stages. UF processes are currently preferred over traditional treatment methods for the following reasons:

  • No chemicals required (aside from cleaning)
  • Constant product quality regardless of feed quality
  • Compact plant size
  • Capable of exceeding regulatory standards of water quality, achieving 90–100% pathogen remova

UF processes are currently limited by the high cost incurred due to membrane fouling and replacement. Additional pretreatment of feed water is required to prevent excessive damage to the membrane units.

In many cases UF is used for pre filtration in reverse osmosis (RO) plants to protect the RO membranes.

UF is used extensively in the dairy industry; particularly in the processing of cheese whey to obtain whey protein concentrate (WPC) and lactose-rich permeate.In a single stage, a UF process is able to concentrate the whey 10–30 times the feed.
The original alternative to membrane filtration of whey was using steam heating followed by drum drying or spray drying. The product of these methods had limited applications due to its granulated texture and insolubility. Existing methods also had inconsistent product composition, high capital and operating costs and due to the excessive heat used in drying would often denature some of the proteins.

Compared to traditional methods, UF processes used for this application:

  • Are more energy efficient
  • Have consistent product quality, 35–80% protein product depending on operating conditions
  • Do not denature proteins as they use moderate operating conditions

The potential for fouling is widely discussed, being identified as a significant contributor to decline in productivity. Cheese whey contains high concentrations of calcium phosphate which can potentially lead to scale deposits on the membrane surface. As a result, substantial pretreatment must be implemented to balance pH and temperature of the feed to maintain solubility of calcium salts.

A selectively permeable membrane can be mounted in a centrifuge tube. The buffer is forced through the membrane by centrifugation, leaving the protein in the upper chamber.

Other applications

  • Filtration of effluent from paper pulp mill
  • Cheese manufacture, see ultrafiltered milk
  • Removal of some bacteria from milk
  • Process and waste water treatment
  • Enzyme recovery
  • Fruit juice concentration and clarification
  • Dialysis and other blood treatments
  • Desalting and solvent-exchange of proteins (via diafiltration)
  • Laboratory grade manufacturing
  • Radiocarbon dating of bone collagen

The basic operating principle of ultrafiltration uses a pressure induced separation of solutes from a solvent through a semi permeable membrane. The relationship between the applied pressure on the solution to be separated and the flux through the membrane is most commonly described by the Darcy equation:

J = T M P μ R t ,

where :

   J is the flux (flow rate per membrane area)

   TMP is the transmembrane pressure (pressure difference between feed and permeate stream

   μ is solvent viscosity

   Rt is the total resistance (sum of membrane and fouling resistance)

When filtration occurs the local concentration of rejected material at the membrane surface increases and can become saturated. In UF, increased ion concentration can develop an osmotic pressure on the feed side of the membrane. This reduces the effective TMP of the system, therefore reducing permeation rate. The increase in concentrated layer at the membrane wall decreases the permeate flux, due to increase in resistance which reduces the driving force for solvent to transport through membrane surface. CP affects almost all the available membrane separation processes. In RO, the solutes retained at the membrane layer results in higher osmotic pressure in comparison to the bulk stream concentration. So the higher pressures are required to overcome this osmotic pressure. Concentration polarisation plays a dominant role in ultrafiltration as compared to microfiltration because of the small pore size membrane. Concentration polarization differs from fouling as it has no lasting effects on the membrane itself and can be reversed by relieving the TMP. It does however have a significant effect on many types of fouling.

Types of Fouling :

The following models describe the mechanisms of particulate deposition on the membrane surface and in the pores:

  • Standard blocking: macromolecules are uniformly deposited on pore walls
  • Complete blocking: membrane pore is completely sealed by a macromolecule
  • Cake formation: accumulated particles or macromolecules form a fouling layer on the membrane surface, in UF this is also known as a gel layer
  • Intermediate blocking: when macromolecules deposit into pores or onto already blocked pores, contributing to cake formation


As a result of concentration polarization at the membrane surface, increased ion concentrations may exceed solubility thresholds and precipitate on the membrane surface. These inorganic salt deposits can block pores causing flux decline, membrane degradation and loss of production. The formation of scale is highly dependent on factors affecting both solubility and concentration polarization including pH, temperature, flow velocity and permeation rate.


Microorganisms will adhere to the membrane surface forming a gel layer – known as biofilm. The film increases the resistance to flow, acting as an additional barrier to permeation. In spiral-wound modules, blockages formed by biofilm can lead to uneven flow distribution and thus increase the effects of concentration polarization.


Cleaning of the membrane is done regularly to prevent the accumulation of foulants and reverse the degrading effects of fouling on permeability and selectivity. Regular backwashing is often conducted every 10 min for some processes to remove cake layers formed on the membrane surface. By pressurising the permeate stream and forcing it back through the membrane, accumulated particles can be dislodged, improving the flux of the process. Backwashing is limited in its ability to remove more complex forms of fouling such as biofouling, scaling or adsorption to pore walls.
These types of foulants require chemical cleaning to be removed. The common types of chemicals used for cleaning are:

  • Acidic solutions for the control of inorganic scale deposits
  • Alkali solutions for removal of organic compounds
  • Biocides or disinfection such as chlorine or peroxide when bio-fouling is evident

When designing a cleaning protocol it is essential to consider:

Cleaning time – Adequate time must be allowed for chemicals to interact with foulants and permeate into the membrane pores. However, if the process is extended beyond its optimum duration it can lead to denaturation of the membrane and deposition of removed foulants. The complete cleaning cycle including rinses between stages may take as long as 2 hours to complete.

Aggressiveness of chemical treatment – With a high degree of fouling it may be necessary to employ aggressive cleaning solutions to remove fouling material. However, in some applications this may not be suitable if the membrane material is sensitive, leading to enhanced membrane ageing.

Disposal of cleaning effluent – The release of some chemicals into wastewater systems may be prohibited or regulated therefore this must be considered. For example, the use of phosphoric acid may result in high levels of phosphates entering water ways and must be monitored and controlled to prevent eutrophication.

Summary of common types of fouling and their respective chemical treatments

Reagent Time and
Mode of Action
Fats and oils, proteins,
polysaccharides, bacteria
0.5 M NaOH
with 200 ppm Cl2
30–60 min
25–55 °C
Hydrolysis and
DNA, mineral salts 0.1–0.5 M acid
(acetic, citric, nitric)
30–60 min
25–35 °C
Fats, oils,
0.1% SDS,
0.1% Triton X-100
30 min – overnight
25–55 °C
Wetting, emulsifying,
suspending, dispersing
Cell fragments, fats,
oils, proteins
Enzyme detergents 30 min – overnight
30–40 °C
Catalytic breakdown
DNA 0.5% DNAase 30 min – overnight
20–40 °C
Enzyme hydrolysis

Ultrafiltration systems contain extremely fine membrane filters which need to be properly cleaned. The cleaning process used depends on whether a UF system is being used to remove organic or inorganic contaminants, or even both. To remove organic contaminants the general cleaning protocol for the cleaning of tubular membranes is to use a low foam, medium alkaline detergent at 0.6% to 1% for a maximum of 40 to 60 minutes. To remove inorganic contaminants the best treatment is with citric acid at a maximum concentration of 3.0 %. The acid should circulate for 1 to 3 hours. Hydrochloric acid can also be used to clean membranes, as can oxalic, sulfuric and nitric acid.