Nowadays, inadequate access to clean water has become one of the most pervasive problems due to the rapidly expanding global population and thus the exponentially growing demand in water and food supply, industry and social life (Shannon et al. 2008). Problems with water have called out for a large number of researchers to pay more attention to water sustainability and put forth effort to explore more robust technologies for wastewater treatment and desalination in addition to improving the efficiency of the current water production and distribution systems (Sikdar 2011). Among many potential solutions, membrane processes such as reverse osmosis (RO), nanofiltration (NF), ultrafiltration (UF), and microfiltration (MF) have found their overwhelming applications in water industry. However, these technologies are either chemically or energetically intensive, thus are castigated for high cost due to substantial chemical and energy consumptions as well as high fouling propensity which requires frequent backwash or cleaning. Forward osmosis (FO), utilizing the natural phenomenon of osmosis, is an emerging membrane process driven by the osmotic pressure gradient created across a semipermeable membrane by two flowing streams of varying concentration (i.e., the draw solution and the feed). Hence, the energy required to transport water across the membrane is almost negligible. Far from being so, FO creates much less problem of fouling and cleaning (Mi and Elimelech 2010). By virtue of these unique features, FO distinguishes itself from other membrane processes for sustainable supply of clean water. An example of the FO unit for wastewater treatment is shown in Fig. 1. In the FO process as illustrated, the draw solution (an aqueous solution of magnetic nanoparticles covered with thermosensitive polymer) (Ling et al. 2011) and the feed (wastewater) partitioned by the membrane flow co-currently through corresponding channels. The draw solution, having a higher osmotic pressure than the feed, draws water from the feed and flows back to the reservoir. As it continuously takes clean water from the feed, the draw solution in the reservoir becomes diluted. A regeneration process is connected to the reservoir to re-concentrate the draw solution as well as to produce clean water. A portion of the diluted draw solution is pre-heated with the aid of solar panel or waste heat and traverses a magnetic field. Upon heating, the magnetic nanoparticles covered with thermosensitive polymers change their surface property from hydrophilic to hydrophobic and are easily seized by the magnetic field or other filtration processes. As a result, clean water freely passes through and is collected as the product. The trapped magnetic nanoparticles are then sent back to the reservoir to replenish the draw solution. The 1st key component of the FO unit is the membrane material which should be semipermeable, i.e., allowing water to permeate through while blocking all the solutes in the draw and feed solutions. A tremendous amount of research has been conducted on the molecular design of new membrane materials with superior FO performance and great progress has been achieved in the past 5 years. To date, several types of FO membranes have been reported such as (1) flat sheet membranes made of cellulose esters (Wang et al. 2010a; Zhang et al. 2010); (2) J. Su M. M. Ling T.-S. Chung (&) Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, National University of Singapore, 4 Engineering Drive 4, Singapore 117576, Singapore e-mail: chencts@nus.edu.sg

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