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What's The Difference Between Reverse Osmosis (RO) vs. Nano-Filtration (NF)

nano filtration vs reverse osmosis


Reverse osmosis (RO) and Nano-filtration (NF) are physical separation technologies used to remove contaminants from liquids. In recent years, RO/NF technologies have become more efficient and affordable for use across a variety of industrial, commercial and residential applications, including potable water generation and the treatment of brackish water, seawater, wastewater and drinking water.

If you’re wondering what filtration options might be available for separation and/or potable water generation you might be asking “What are the differences between reverse osmosis and nano-filtration?”

The following post will simplify the differences between RO and NF by first focusing on their similarities:

How RO and NF are similar

RO and NF are membrane filtration technologies in which pressure is applied to a liquid stream, driving it through a semipermeable membrane in order to remove dissolved solids. In this way, RO/NF closely resemble other forms of membrane filtration, including Micro-filtration (MF) and Ultrafiltration (UF), yet are capable of removing even smaller molecules, such as dissolved organics, pesticides, and agricultural chemicals.

Both RO and NF benefit from pretreatment

With the smallest pores of all filtration membranes, RO and NF membranes can foul quickly if larger particles aren’t removed by upstream filtration technologies, such as media filtration or MF/UF. Pretreating process streams to remove these problematic particulates can also reduce the amount of energy needed to maintain adequate pressure in a RO/NF system.

When process streams are sufficiently pretreated, RO/NF membranes can have a long service life and require relatively little maintenance. This is because feed water constantly flows across the surface of the filtration membrane in what is called crossflow filtration, which results in rejected substances being swept away with the waste stream, as opposed to caking onto the membrane.

Both RO and NF require pressure to function

While RO and NF are fairly efficient purification technologies, both demand energy to move water across their membranes. This is because their fine pores result in a high concentration of salts and other compounds on the retentive side of the membrane, and as a result, enough pressure must be applied that the water is able to overcome the osmotic pressure that causes water to resist flowing through the membrane.

Both are used in place of conventional treatment technologies

Conventional water treatment trains (in case of industrial application) typically consist of several unit processes, including: coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, clarification, ion exchange, and filtration. For residential treatments these steps are sedimentation, clarification, ion exchange, filtration, purification and polishing.

While conventional treatment systems are effective in removing dissolved solids, they do so through a complex series of steps that often demand a large industrial footprint and investment in an assortment of specialized equipment and chemical agents. This issue is not present in residential or commercial systems and the systems can be installed under the sink or in customer's garage or basement.

As RO/NF membrane technologies have become more efficient, affordable in recent years and small in size for residential and commercial application, they are increasingly being adopted as more compact, efficient, and environmentally-friendly alternatives to conventional treatment systems. When NF is used in place of traditional lime softening, for example, multiple treatment steps are consolidated into one, and no concentrated brine byproducts are produced.  

How RO/NF Are Different

While RO and NF are very similar, they can be distinguished based on the size of particulates that each is able to remove or reject in case of RO. Comparatively, RO and NF are capable of removing finer contaminates than MF and UF, with applications including the removal of hardness, nitrates, sulfates, total dissolved solids (TDS), heavy metals, radionuclides, and organic macromolecules from process and waste streams.

Reverse osmosis

RO is the finest of all membrane filtration and purification systems, with extremely small pores capable of removing particles as small as 0.1 nm (0.0001 micrometers). RO has existed since the 1950s, and was used chiefly for desalination, as in potable water generation from seawater or brackish water sources. Other applications of RO include filtering process water for industrial applications, such as in the printing industry, in order to sustain optimal equipment performance.  RO membranes are very efficient at removing all ions, large and small. For residential and commercial applications reverse osmosis systems have become the #1 choice to purify drinking water and are unmatched in effectiveness, efficiency and cost savings company to any other filtration or purification method. 


NF delivers slightly coarser filtration than RO, with the ability to remove particles as small as 0.002 to 0.005 μm in diameter. NF is a relatively recent technology that was developed mainly for potable water generation. NF removes harmful contaminants, such as pesticide compounds and organic macromolecules, while retaining higher levels of minerals that RO would otherwise remove. Today's RO systems retain traces of minerals to ensure water tastes well and is safe to consume. Nano-filtration membranes are capable of removing larger divalent ions such as calcium sulfate while allowing smaller monovalent ions such as sodium chloride to pass through.

Click here if you want to learn more about nano-filtration, micro-filtration, ultrafiltration vs reverse osmosis and other options to filter and purify drinking water? 

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