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Diagram of simple filtration: oversize particles in the feed cannot pass through the lattice structure of the filter, while fluid and small particles pass through, becoming filtrate.

Filtration is a physical separation process that separates solid matter and fluid from a mixture using a filter medium that has a complex structure through which only the fluid can pass. Solid particles that cannot pass through the filter medium are described as oversize and the fluid that passes through is called the filtrate.[1] Oversize particles may form a filter cake on top of the filter and may also block the filter lattice, preventing the fluid phase from crossing the filter, known as blinding. The size of the largest particles that can successfully pass through a filter is called the effective pore size of that filter. The separation of solid and fluid is imperfect; solids will be contaminated with some fluid and filtrate will contain fine particles (depending on the pore size, filter thickness and biological activity). Filtration occurs both in nature and in engineered systems; there are biological, geological, and industrial forms.[2]

Filtration is also used to describe biological and physical systems that not only separate solids from a fluid stream but also remove chemical species and biological organisms by entrainment, phagocytosis, adsorption and absorption. Examples include slow sand filters and trickling filters. It is also used as a general term for macrophage in which organisms use a variety of means to filter small food particles from their environment. Examples range from the microscopic Vorticella up to the basking shark, one of the largest fishes, and the baleen whales, all of which are described as filter feeders.

Physical processes


There are many different methods of filtration; all aim to attain the separation of substances. Separation is achieved by some form of interaction between the substance or objects to be removed and the filter. The substance that is to pass through the filter must be a fluid, i.e. a liquid or gas. Methods of filtration vary depending on the location of the targeted material, i.e. whether it is dissolved in the fluid phase or suspended as a solid.

Hot filtration, solution contained in the Erlenmeyer flask is heated on a hot plate to prevent re-crystallization of solids in the flask itself

There are several laboratory filtration techniques depending on the desired outcome namely, hot, cold and vacuum filtration. Some of the major purposes of obtaining the desired outcome are, for the removal of impurities from a mixture or, for the isolation of solids from a mixture.

Hot filtration for the separation of solids from a hot solution

Hot filtration method is mainly used to separate solids from a hot solution. This is done to prevent crystal formation in the filter funnel and other apparatus that come in contact with the solution. As a result, the apparatus and the solution used are heated to prevent the rapid decrease in temperature which in turn, would lead to the crystallisation of the solids in the funnel and hinder the filtration process.[3] One of the most important measures to prevent the formation of crystals in the funnel and to undergo effective hot filtration is the use stemless filter funnel. Due to the absence of a stem in the filter funnel, there is a decrease in the surface area of contact between the solution and the stem of the filter funnel, hence preventing re-crystallization of solid in the funnel, and adversely affecting the filtration process.

Cold filtration, the ice bath is used to cool down the temperature of the solution before undergoing the filtration process

Cold filtration method is the use of an ice bath to rapidly cool the solution to be crystallized rather than leaving it to cool slowly in the room atmosphere. This technique results in the formation of very small crystals as opposed to getting large crystals by cooling the solution at room temperature.

Vacuum filtration technique is mostly preferred for small batches of solution to dry small crystals quickly. This method requires a Büchner funnel, filter paper of a smaller diameter than the funnel, Büchner flask, and rubber tubing to connect to a vacuum source.

Centrifugal filtration is carried out by rapidly rotating the substance to be filtered. The more dense material is separated from the less dense matter by the horizontal rotation.[4]

Gravity filtration is the process of pouring the mixture from a higher location to a lower one. It is frequently accomplished via simple filtration, which involves placing filter paper in a glass funnel with the liquid passing through by gravity while the insoluble solid particles are caught by the filter paper. Filter cones, fluted filters, or filtering pipets can all be employed, depending on the amount of the substance at hand.[4]

Filtering force

Only when a driving force is supplied will the fluid to be filtered be able to flow through the filter media. Gravity, centrifugation, applying pressure to the fluid above the filter, applying a vacuum below the filter, or a combination of these factors may all contribute to this force. In both straightforward laboratory filtrations and massive sand-bed filters, gravitational force alone may be utilized. Centrifuges with a bowl holding a porous filter media can be thought of as filters in which a centrifugal force several times stronger than gravity replaces gravitational force. A partial vacuum is typically provided to the container below the filter media when laboratory filtration is challenging to speed up the filtering process. Depending on the type of filter being used, the majority of industrial filtration operations employ pressure or vacuum to speed up filtering and reduce the amount of equipment needed.[5]

Filter media

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Filter media are the materials used to do the separation of materials.

Two main types of filter media are employed in laboratories: surface filters, which are solid sieves that trap the solid particles, with or without the aid of filter paper (e.g. Büchner funnel, belt filter, rotary vacuum-drum filter, cross-flow filters, screen filter), and depth filters, a bed of granular material which retains the solid particles as they pass (e.g. sand filter). The surface filter type allows the solid particles, i.e. the residue, to be collected intact; the depth filter does not permit this. However, the depth filter is less prone to clogging due to the greater surface area where the particles can be trapped. Also, when the solid particles are very fine, it is often cheaper and easier to discard the contaminated granules than to clean the solid sieve.[6]

Filter media can be cleaned by rinsing with solvents or detergents or backwashing. Alternatively, in engineering applications, such as swimming pool water treatment plants, they may be cleaned by backwashing. Self-cleaning screen filters utilize point-of-suction backwashing to clean the screen without interrupting system flow.[clarification needed]

Achieving flow through the filter

Fluids flow through a filter due to a pressure difference—fluid flows from the high-pressure side to the low-pressure side of the filter. The simplest method to achieve this is by gravity which can be seen in the coffeemaker example. In the laboratory, pressure in the form of compressed air on the feed side (or vacuum on the filtrate side) may be applied to make the filtration process faster, though this may lead to clogging or the passage of fine particles. Alternatively, the liquid may flow through the filter by the force exerted by a pump, a method commonly used in industry when a reduced filtration time is important. In this case, the filter need not be mounted vertically.

Filter aid

Certain filter aids may be used to aid filtration. These are often incompressible diatomaceous earth, or kieselguhr, which is composed primarily of silica. Also used are wood cellulose and other inert porous solids such as the cheaper and safer perlite. Activated carbon is often used in industrial applications that require changes in the filtrate's properties, such as altering colour or odour.

These filter aids can be used in two different ways. They can be used as a precoat before the slurry is filtered. This will prevent gelatinous-type solids from plugging the filter medium and also give a clearer filtrate. They can also be added to the slurry before filtration. This increases the porosity of the cake and reduces the resistance of the cake during filtration. In a rotary filter, the filter aid may be applied as a precoat; subsequently, thin slices of this layer are sliced off with the cake.

The use of filter aids is usually limited to cases where the cake is discarded or where the precipitate can be chemically separated from the filter.


Filtration is a more efficient method for the separation of mixtures than decantation but is much more time-consuming. If very small amounts of solution are involved, most of the solution may be soaked up by the filter medium.

An alternative to filtration is centrifugation. Instead of filtering the mixture of solid and liquid particles, the mixture is centrifuged to force the (usually) denser solid to the bottom, where it often forms a firm cake. The liquid above can then be decanted. This method is especially useful for separating solids that do not filter well, such as gelatinous or fine particles. These solids can clog or pass through the filter, respectively.

Biological filtration

Biological filtration may take place inside an organism, or the biological component may be grown on a medium in the material being filtered. Removal of solids, emulsified components, organic chemicals and ions may be achieved by ingestion and digestion, adsorption or absorption. Because of the complexity of biological interactions, especially in multi-organism communities, it is often not possible to determine which processes are achieving the filtration result. At the molecular level, it may often be by individual catalytic enzyme actions within an individual organism. The waste products of some organisms may subsequently broken down by other organisms to extract as much energy as possible and in so doing reduce complex organic molecules to very simple inorganic species such as water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen.


Main article: Excretion

Inside mammals reptiles and birds, the kidneys function by renal filtration in which the glomerulus selectively removes undesirable constituents such as urea, followed by selective reabsorption of many substances essential for the body to maintain homeostasis. The complete process is termed excretion. Similar but often less complex solutions are deployed in all animals even the protozoa where the contractile vacuole provides a similar function.


Main article: Biofilm

Biofilms are often complex communities of bacteria, phages, yeasts and often more complex organisms including protozoa, rotifers and annelids which form dynamic and complex, frequently gelatinous films on wet substrates. Such biofilms coat the rocks of most rivers and the sea and they provide the key filtration capability of the Schmutzdecke on the surface of slow sand filters and the film on the filter media of trickling filters which are used to create potable water and treat sewage respectively.

An example of a biofilm is a biological slime, which may be found in lakes, rivers, rocks, etc. The utilization of single- or dual-species biofilms is a novel technology since natural biofilms are sluggishly developing. The use of biofilms in the biofiltration process allows for the attachment of desirable biomass and critical nutrients to immobilized support. So that water may be reused for various processes, advances in biofiltration methods assist in removing significant volumes of effluents from the wastewater.[7]

Systems for biologically treating wastewater are crucial for enhancing both human health and water quality. Biofilm technology, the formation of biofilms on various filter media, and other factors have an impact on the growth structure and function of these biofilms. To conduct a thorough investigation of the composition, diversity, and dynamics of biofilms, it also takes on a variety of traditional and contemporary molecular approaches.[8]

Filter feeders

Main article: Filter feeders

Filter feeders are organisms that obtain their food by filtering their, generally aquatic, environment. Many of the protozoa are filter feeders using a range of adaptations including rigid spikes of protoplasm held in the water flow as in the suctoria to various arrangements of beating cillia to direct particles to the mouth including organisms such as Vorticella which have a complex ring of cilia which create a vortex in the flow drafting particles into the oral cavity. Similar feeding techniques are used by the Rotifera and the Ectoprocta. Many aquatic arthropods are filter feeders. Some use rhythmical beating of abdominal limbs to create a water current to the mouth whilst the hairs on the legs trap any particle. Others such as some caddis flies spin fine webs in the water flow to trap particles.

Applications and examples

Filter flask (suction flask, with sintered glass filter containing sample). Note the almost colourless filtrate in the receiver flask.

Many filtration processes include more than one filtration mechanism, and particulates are often removed from the fluid first to prevent clogging of downstream elements.

Particulate filtration includes:

Adsorption filtration removes contaminants by adsorption of the contaminant by the filter medium. This requires intimate contact between the filter medium and the filtrate, and takes time for diffusion to bring the contaminant into direct contact with the medium while passing through it, referred to as dwell time. Slower flow also reduces pressure drop across the filter. Applications include:

Combined applications include:

Small stationary Bauer HP breathing air compressor installation showing water separator (centre), and two high-pressure product filter housings (gold anodised) to produce oxygen compatible breathing air for diving gas mixtures.
This section needs expansion with: more examples and clarification. You can help by adding to it. (May 2021)

See also


  1. ^ Article on "Water treatment solution: Filtration", retrieved on 15 October 2013 from
  2. ^ Sparks, Trevor; Chase, George (2015). Filters and Filtration Handbook (6th ed.). Butterworth-Heinemann. ISBN 9780080993966.
  3. ^ "Filtration Methods" (PDF). University of Calgary. University of Calgary. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 February 2015. Retrieved 4 June 2015.
  4. ^ a b "Filtration - Definition, Types, Functions & Quiz". Biology Dictionary. 3 March 2017.
  5. ^ "filtration | Definition, Examples, & Processes | Britannica".
  6. ^ Chhabra, Raj; Basavaraj, Madivala G., eds. (1 January 2019), "Chapter 10 - Liquid Filtration", Coulson and Richardson's Chemical Engineering (Sixth Edition), Butterworth-Heinemann, pp. 555–625, doi:10.1016/B978-0-08-101098-3.00011-1, ISBN 978-0-08-101098-3, S2CID 239117840, retrieved 13 October 2022
  7. ^ Dave, Sushma; Churi, Hardik; Litoria, Pratiksha; David, Preethi; Das, Jayashankar (1 January 2021). "Chapter 3 - Biofilms, filtration, microbial kinetics and mechanism of degradation: a revolutionary approach". Membrane-Based Hybrid Processes for Wastewater Treatment. Elsevier: 25–43. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-823804-2.00018-5. ISBN 9780128238042. S2CID 237996887.
  8. ^ Sehar, Shama; Naz, Iffat (13 July 2016). "Role of the Biofilms in Wastewater Treatment". Microbial Biofilms - Importance and Applications. doi:10.5772/63499. ISBN 978-953-51-2435-1. S2CID 5035829.