Feed substrates influence biofilm formation on reverse osmosis (RO) membranes and their cleaning efficiency

Document Type


Publication Date



Journal of Dairy Science










biofilm; cleaning; reverse osmosis membrane; ultrafiltration permeate; whey


The dairy industry is increasingly using reverse osmosis (RO) membranes for concentration of various fluid feed materials such as whey and ultrafiltration (UF) permeate. This study compared the effect of UF permeate and whey on membrane biofilm formation. A Bacillus sp., previously isolated in our laboratory from a cleaning-resistant membrane biofilm, was used to develop 48-h-old static biofilms on RO membrane pieces, using the different feed substrates (UF permeate, whey, and an alternating whey/UF feed). Biofilms were analyzed for viable counts by the swab technique, and we used scanning electron and atomic force microscopy for microstructure imaging. The membrane cleaning process included 6 sequential steps. We observed differences in the resistance pattern of the 3 types of biofilms to the typical cleaning process. The mean pretreatment counts of the 48-h UF permeate biofilms were 5.39 log cfu/cm2, much higher than the whey biofilm counts of 3.44 log, and alternating whey/UF biofilm counts of 4.54 log. After a 6-step cleaning cycle, we found 2.54 log survivors of the Bacillus isolate on UF biofilms, whereas only 1.82 log survivors were found in whey biofilm, and 2.14 log survivors on whey/UF permeate biofilms. In conclusion, the UF permeate biofilms was more resistant to the biofilm cleaning process compared with the whey or whey/UF permeate biofilms. Scanning electron micrographs showed different microstructures of biofilms based on the type of feed. For UF permeate and whey/UF permeate biofilms, bacilli were present in multilayers of cells in aggregates or irregular clusters with foulant layers. In contrast, those in whey biofilms were in monolayers, with a smoother, flatter appearance. Atomic force microscopy analysis indicated that UF permeate biofilms had the greatest surface roughness among the biofilms, reflecting intensified bacterial colonization. The biofilm micro- and nanostructure variations for the 2 feed substrates and their combination may have resulted in differences in their resistance to the cleaning process.