What Are Protein Skimmers And How Do They Work?
An introduction to Protein Skimming

Protein Skimmer: A General Definition

A protein skimmer or foam fractionator is a device used mostly in saltwater aquaria to remove organic compounds from the water before they break down into nitrogenous waste. Protein skimming is the only form of aquarium filtration that physically removes organic compounds before they begin to decompose, lightening the load on the biological filter and improving the water's redox potential. Although the process of foam fractionation is commonly known for removal of waste from aquaria, it is, in fact, a rapidly developing chemical process used in the large-scale removal of contaminants from wastewater streams and the enrichment of solutions of biomolecules.


Protein skimming removes certain organic compounds, including proteins and amino acids, by using the polarity of the protein itself. Due to their intrinsic charge, water-borne proteins are either repelled or attracted by the air/water interface and these molecules can be described as hydrophobic (such as fats or oils) or hydrophilic (such as salt, sugar, ammonia, most amino acids, and most inorganic compounds). However, some larger organic molecules can have both hydrophobic and hydrophilic portions. These molecules are called amphipathic or amphiphilic.

Commercial protein skimmers work by generating a large air/water interface, specifically by injecting large numbers of bubbles into the water column. In general, the smaller the bubbles the more effective the protein skimming is because the surface area of small bubbles occupying the same volume is much greater than the same volume of larger bubbles. Large numbers of small bubbles present an enormous air/water interface for the organic molecules which are hydrophobic and those which are amphipathic to collect on the bubble surface (the air/water interface).

The diffusion of organic molecules is hastened by water movement, which effectively brings more organic molecules to the air/water interface and allows the organic molecules to accumulate on the surface of the air bubbles. This process will continue until the interface is saturated, unless the bubble is removed from the water or it bursts, in which case the accumulated molecules are released back into the water column. However, it is important to note that further exposure of a saturated air bubble to organic molecules may continue to result in changes as compounds that bind more strongly may replace those molecules with a weaker binding that have already accumulated on the interface. Although some aquarists believe that increasing the contact time (or dwell time as it is sometimes called) is always good, it is incorrect to claim that it is always better to increase the contact time between bubbles and the aquarium water. As the bubbles increase near the top of the protein skimmer water column, they become denser and the water begins to drain and create the foam that will carry the organic molecules to the skimmate collection cup or to a separate skimmate waste collector and the organic molecules, and any inorganic molecules that may have become bound to the organic molecules, will be exported from the water system.

In addition to the proteins removed by skimming, there are a number of other organic and inorganic molecules that are typically removed. These include a variety of fats, fatty acids, carbohydrates, metals such as copper and trace elements such as iodine. Particulates and other detritus is also removed, along with phytoplankton and bacteria. This removal is highly desired by the aquarist and is often emphasized by the placement of the skimmer before other forms of filtration; lessening the burden of the filtration system as a whole. There is at least one published study that provides a detailed list of the export products found in protein skimmer skimmate.


All skimmers have key features in common: water flows through a chamber and is brought into contact with a column of fine bubbles. The bubbles collect proteins and other substances and carry them to the top of the device where the foam, but not the water, collects in a cup. Here the foam condenses to a liquid, which can then be easily removed from the system. The material that collects in the cup can range from pale greenish-yellow, watery liquid to a thick black tar.

For a skimmer to function maximally, the following things must take place:

1. A large amount of air/water interface must be generated.
2. Organic molecules must be allowed to collect at the air/water interface.
3. The bubbles forming this air/water interface must come together to form a foam.
4. The water in the foam must partially drain without the bubbles popping prematurely.
5. The drained foam must be separated from the bulk water and discarded.

Also under considerable recent attention has been the general shape of a skimmer as well. In particular, much attention has been given to the introduction of cone shaped skimmer units. Originally designed by Klaus Jensen in 2004, the concept was founded on the principle that a conical body allows the foam to accumulate more steadily through a gently sloping transition. This reduces the overall turbulence, resulting in more efficient skimming. While research into the specific benefits of the design are still being measured, early reviews of many conical skimmers have been positive overall.

Overall, protein skimmers can be classed in two ways depending on whether they operate by co-current flow or counter-current flow. In a co-current flow system, air is introduced at the bottom of the chamber and is in contact with the water as it rises upwards towards the collection chamber. In a counter-current system, air is forced into the system under pressure and moves against the flow of the water for a while before it rises up towards the collection cup. Because the air bubbles may be in contact with the water for a longer period in a counter-current flow system, protein skimmers of this type are considered by some to be more effective at removing organic wastes.

Co-current flow systems

Air stone

The original method of protein skimming, running pressurized air through a diffuser to produce large quantities of micro bubbles, remains a viable, effective, and economic choice, although newer technologies may require lower maintenance. The air stone is most often an oblong, partially hollowed block of wood, most often of the genus Tilia. The most popular wooden air-stones for skimmers are made from limewood (Tilia europaea or European limewood) although basswood (Tilia americana or American Linden), works as well, may be cheaper and is often more readily available. The wooden blocks are drilled, tapped, fitted with an air fitting, and connected by air tubing to one or more air pumps delivering at least 1 cfm. The wooden air stone is placed at the bottom of a tall column of water. The tank water is pumped into the column, allowed to pass by the rising bubbles, and back into the tank. To get enough contact time with the bubble, these units can be many feet in height.

Air stone protein skimmers may be constructed as a DIY project from pvc pipes and fittings at low cost and with varying degrees of complexity.

While this method has been around for many years, many regard it as inefficient for larger systems or systems with large bio-loads.


The premise behind these skimmers is that a venturi pump, or aspirator, can be used to introduce the bubbles into the water stream. The tank water is pumped through the venturi, in which fine bubbles are introduced, then enters the skimmer body. This method was popular due to its compact size and high efficiency but venturi designs are now more likely to be included in other skimmer designs rather than as a simple venturi design.

Counter-current flow systems

Aspirating: Pin-WHeel/Adrian-Wheel, Needle-Wheel, Mesh-Wheel

This basic concept is more correctly known as an aspirating skimmer, since some skimmer designs using an aspirator do not use a "Pin-Wheel/"Adrian-Wheel" or "Needle-Wheel". "Pin-Wheel"/"Adrian-Wheel" describes the look of an impeller which consists of a disk with pins mounted perpendicular (90ยบ) to the disc and parallel to the rotor. "Needle-Wheel" describes the look of an impeller which consists of a series of pins projecting out perpendicular to the rotor from a central axis. "Mesh-Wheel" describes the look of an impeller which consists of a mesh material that is attached to a plate or central axis on the rotor. The purpose of these modified impellers is to chop or shred the air that is introduced via a venturi apparatus or external air pump into very fine bubbles. The Mesh-Wheel design is fairly new and, while providing excellent results in the short term because of its ability to draw in more air and create finer bubbles with its thin cutting surfaces, it is still being developed and will likely continue to evolve over a few more years.

This style of protein skimmer has become very popular and is believed to be the most popular type of skimmer used with residential reef aquariums today. It has been particularly successful in smaller aquariums due to its usually compact size, ease of set up and use, and quiet operation. Since the pump is pushing a mixture of air and water, the power required to turn the rotor can be decreased and may result in a lower power requirement for that pump vs. the same pump with a different impeller when it is only pumping water.

(Information taken largely from Wikipedia)

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