Filtration is a mechanical or physical operation which is used for the separation of solids from fluids (liquids or gases) by interposing a medium through which only the fluid can pass. Oversize solids in the fluid are retained, but the separation is not complete; solids will be contaminated with some fluid and filtrate will contain fine particles (depending on the pore size and filter thickness).
The remainder of this article focuses primarily on liquid filtration.
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 vary depending on the location of the targeted material, i.e. whether it is in the fluid phase or not
Two main types of filter media are employed in the chemical laboratory— surface filter, a solid sieve which traps the solid particles, with or without the aid of filter paper (e.g. Büchner funnel, Belt filter, Rotary vacuum-drum filter, Crossflow filters), and a depth filter, a bed of granular material which retains the solid particles as it passes (e.g. sand filter). The first type allows the solid particles, i.e. the residue, to be collected intact; the second type does not permit this. However, the second type 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.
Fluids flow through a filter due to a difference in pressure - fluid flows from the high pressure side to the low pressure side of the filter, leaving some material behind. The simplest method to achieve this is by gravity and 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.
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.
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 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 separated chemically 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 which do not filter well, such as gelatinous or fine particles. These solids can clog or pass through the filter, respectively.
Examples of filtration include
An experiment to prove the existence of microscopic organisms involves the comparison of water passed through unglazed porcelain and unfiltered water. When left in sealed containers the filtered water takes longer to go foul, demonstrating that very small items (such as bacteria) can be removed from fluids by filtration.