Guest Columns

Cheese Technology

Evolutionary developments in membrane process applications

Andy Powers

Andy Powers, vice president of technical services for the American Dairy Products Institute, is a guest columnist for Cheese Market News®.

It’s an interesting challenge, trying to fuse hardwired scientific curiosity with a never-ending focus on the bottom line. Advancements in technology are happening all around us, and they are fascinating in their own right, but a practical business mindset always requires taking into account the end-use value of those technologies, balancing curiosity with pragmatism in order to optimize return on strategic, often costly investments. Few industries enjoy thick enough margins to layer on technology for technology’s sake alone.

In the front of my mind after June’s Membrane Technology Forum is the substantial margin support that membrane technologies of all types will continue to provide behind the scenes of the ongoing and expansive growth of U.S. cheese production.

Membranes are already the beating heart of established processes for upcycling thousands of tons of whey solids co-product into an incredibly diverse portfolio of value-added dairy ingredients that not only deliver high functionality and quality nutrition, but also boost cheese’s bottom line. Membrane-based separation is an essential process technology used in the manufacture of most whey protein concentrates and isolates; whey permeate; lactose; demineralized or reduced minerals whey; whey protein phospholipid concentrate; and numerous other individual whey proteins and variants. Such processes will continue to be employed in our newest cheese plants across the country.

Membranes and their related filtration technologies are also paying dividends on the efficiency and sustainability fronts, contributing to more and more efficient recovery and use of water and cleaning chemicals, decreasing process waste and reducing above-the-line operating costs.

All these technological applications, from well-known core processes to steady, marginal efficiency gains and process improvements, translate into a robust foundation for cheesemaking and other dairy processing amid a landscape of prolific and relentless would-be competitors.

Perhaps even more encouraging than this broad family of existing filtration-related capabilities is the realization that there are real innovations taking place in membrane technologies that ensure their sophistication and utility will continue to grow apace with our domestic cheesemaking industry as our production capacity continues its skyward trajectory. The Membrane Technology Forum program was filled with companies eager to talk about these innovations, virtually all of which have applications and implications for U.S. cheese.

Fouling is the bane of filtration. As any membrane, fiber or ceramic elements become fouled with material, flux through the filter decreases, and lost flux = diminished capacity = lost production = lost revenue. And the offset for fouling is cleaning, but the more often or the longer you have to clean a filtration system, the longer that system is offline, and again the result is lost productivity. So imagine the multiplicative gains to be had by improving a membrane’s innate resistance to fouling by refining that membrane’s chemistry at the time of casting. Flux declines more slowly, Clean-in-place (CIP) time and frequency are diminished, chemical costs are decreased, all while in-use productivity and total uptime are increased. Multiple presenters such as DuPont and Vandstrom spoke about the opportunities to be found within this fouling resistance landscape, stemming from ongoing improvements in membrane polymer formulation chemistry.

Taking that fouling resistance idea to a whole new level, imagine if polymer membrane surface chemistry was effectively “switchable” from the best characteristics for your specific separation (which might also invite fouling) but also with the ability to reverse that affinity for fouling material and restore the membrane to separation conditions once more. With the right revolutionary polymer chemistry, a membrane can be made to operate in optimum separation mode under one set of conditions, but when flux tails off as fouling occurs, that same membrane can be switched via a simple shift in those operating conditions to a reversed charge chemistry that helps to repel fouling buildup via electrostatic repulsion. Same results as described above, but with a simpler means to restore flux and with a quicker return to normal online operating conditions. And according to Ecofilter Tek, an innovator in this space, a switchable membrane of this sort can still be manufactured for different porosities, yielding applications from microfiltration to ultrafiltration to nanofiltration and reverse osmosis. Such “smart polymer” technology is no longer a fantasy, it’s a legitimate product offering that is beginning to explore its diverse applications in dairy.

Ameridia Innovative Solutions showed us that electrodialysis not only retains its place in familiar and valuable applications such as the production of high-grade reduced minerals/demineralized whey, but it is also finding traction for processing traditionally “difficult” streams like acid whey and for tailoring specific minerals content in whey products to improve heat stability and provide other custom functionality.

Ceramic and hollow fiber “membranes” continue to break ground in specific dairy applications, whether due to unique physical and mechanical durability (like heat and chemical tolerance for ceramics) or special combinations of flux and selectivity (such as with certain hollow fibers). Presentations by Kovalus and Pentair shed some light on the unique advantages that these special technologies offer, for ceramics and hollow fiber filters, respectively.

Whether you’re talking about polymer membranes, ceramics or hollow fibers, no single technology, no matter how robust or innovative, will be completely immune to the operational challenges faced in these myriad whey processing applications. Proper care and maintenance will continue to depend on the right types of environmentally friendly chemical cleaning and sanitizing agents; improved food-grade enzymes for fouling and biofilm control that will also tolerate higher process temperatures and more extreme pH levels; and intelligently designed, diligent regimens of filtration element monitoring and replacement — all of which will allow the dairy processor to keep separations functions on the right side of that crucial pivot point between returns and operating costs. U.S. cheesemaker Leprino devoted its keynote address to the emphasis of careful membrane predictive and preventive maintenance and timely replacement as critical to support the vital role that membranes play in its processes and the analogous processes of other manufacturers throughout the industry.

The June conference provided more useful takeaways than I could summarize in a single article, but hopefully I have been successful at piquing your curiosity by hitting some of the highlights, and I encourage you to follow up to learn more about this evolving landscape of membrane technology applications. A quick visit to will provide any visitor with a link to the program details from this year’s Membrane Technology Forum, and ADPI members can access further informative resources such as Dr. Karen Smith’s Dried Dairy Ingredients, 3rd Edition, where she expands on the use of micro-, ultra- and nanofiltration technology in dairy ingredients manufacture, along with some reverse osmosis and electrodialysis ( It’s a great read, and a must for anyone who is serious about understanding the potential for membrane technologies to preserve competitiveness and profitability in whey processing and beyond.


The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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