Kamalesh Sirkar, PhD, distinguished professor of chemical engineering at NJIT, and internationally-renowned expert in membrane separation technologies, has been named a Fellow by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He also received the Clarence G. Gerhold Award from the separations division of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) at a dinner on Nov. 17, 2008 in Philadelphia; the honor recognized his extensive contributions to chemical separations technology. Earlier on the same day, two special sessions sponsored by AIChE provided an opportunity for his colleagues from around the world to present lectures about their own work which Sirkar had influenced.
Sirkar, who is also the foundation professor in membrane separations at NJIT, is best known among colleagues as the inventor of the commercialized membrane-based solvent extraction technology. The former Hoechst Celanese Inc. received honorable mention in the Kirkpatrick Award for this work in 1991. Sirkar usually works with miniscule membranes, whose openings are often smaller in size than nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter.
“The basic principles of membrane separation have been known for a long time,” said Sirkar. “Intestines in animals and humans are semi-permeable membranes. Early experiments to study the process of separation were performed by chemists using samples of animal membranes.”
Today, membrane separation processes depend on the design of the membrane and the membrane module. The size of the membrane pores is often the key to determining which molecular components in either a liquid or gas form will pass through the membrane. Typically molecules flow from a region of high to low concentration.
Pressure or concentration differences on both sides of the membrane cause the actual separation to occur. Membrane separation processes are used in biomedical and biotechnology processes, by the chemical, food, petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries and in water treatments to separate, purify or concentrate liquid solutions, cellular suspensions or gaseous mixtures.
More recently, Sirkar has turned his attention to developing new and better ways to desalinate water. The membrane distillation process he has been developing has been especially notable because it works with brines holding salt concentrations above 5.5 percent. Currently, 5.5 percent is the highest percentage of salt in brine that is treated commercially using reverse osmosis. “We especially like this new process because we can fuel it with low-grade, inexpensive waste heat,” Sirkar said.
The science behind his membrane distillation process is simple. The inexpensive fuel heats the water, forcing it to evaporate from the salt solution. The water vapor then travels through nano-sized pores in the membrane to wind up condensed in the cold water on the membrane’s other side
Sirkar has led membrane separations and biotechnology at NJIT since 1992. He is the author of more than 152 peer-reviewed journal articles. In 2006, he was a recipient of the Thomas Alva Edison Patent Award in the Environmental Category from the Research and Development Council of NJ. Other honors include NJIT’s Excellence in Research Award for Newark College of Engineering in 2007 and the AIChE Institute Award for Excellence in Industrial Gases Technology in 2005. In 2001, he was named an Honorary Fellow of the Indian Institute of Chemical Engineers.
AIChE is the world’s leading organization for chemical engineering professionals, with more than 40,000 members from 93 countries.