A semipermeable membrane, also termed a selectively-permeable membrane, a partially-permeable membrane or a differentially-permeable membrane, is a membrane that will allow certain molecules or ions to pass through it by diffusion and occasionally specialized "facilitated diffusion." The rate of passage depends on the pressure, concentration, and temperature of the molecules or solutes on either side, as well as the permeability of the membrane to each solute. Depending on the membrane and the solute, permeability may depend on solute size, solubility, properties, or chemistry. An example of a semi-permeable membrane is a lipid bilayer, on which is based the plasma membrane that surrounds all biological cells. Many natural and synthetic materials thicker than a membrane are also semipermeable. An example of this is the thin film on the inside of an egg.
One example of a semipermeable membrane is a phospholipid bilayer, a group of phospholipids (consisting of a phosphate head and 2 fatty-acid tails) arranged into a double-layer, with the hydrophilic phosphate heads exposed to the water content outside and within the cell and the hydrophobic fatty-acid tails hidden in the inside. The phospholipid bilayer is the most permeable to small, uncharged solutes. Protein channels float through the phospholipids, and, collectively, this model is known as the fluid mosaic model.
In the process of reverse osmosis, Thin film composite membranes (TFC or TFM) are used. Thin film composite membranes are semipermeable membranes manufactured principally for use in water purification or desalination systems. They also have use in chemical applications such as batteries and fuel cells. In essence, a TFC material is a molecular sieve constructed in the form of a film from two or more layered materials.
Membranes used in reverse osmosis are, in general, made out of polyimide, chosen primarily for its permeability to water and relative impermeability to various dissolved impurities including salt ions and other small molecules that cannot be filtered. Another example of a semipermeable membrane is dialysis tubing.