Academic Commons


Salinity Gradients for Sustainable Energy: Primer, Progress, and Prospects

Yip, Ngai Yin; Brogioli, Doriano; Hamelers, Hubertus V. M.; Nijmeijer, Kitty

Combining two solutions of different composition releases the Gibbs free energy of mixing. By using engineered processes to control the mixing, chemical energy stored in salinity gradients can be harnessed for useful work. In this critical review, we present an overview of the current progress in salinity gradient power generation, discuss the prospects and challenges of the foremost technologies — pressure retarded osmosis (PRO), reverse electrodialysis (RED), and capacitive mixing (CapMix) and provide perspectives on the outlook of salinity gradient power generation. Momentous strides have been made in technical development of salinity gradient technologies and field demonstrations with natural and anthropogenic salinity gradients (for example, seawater–river water and desalination brine-wastewater, respectively), but fouling persists to be a pivotal operational challenge that can significantly ebb away cost-competitiveness. Natural hypersaline sources (e.g., hypersaline lakes and salt domes) can achieve greater concentration difference and, thus, offer opportunities to overcome some of the limitations inherent to seawater–river water. Technological advances needed to fully exploit the larger salinity gradients are identified. While seawater desalination brine is a seemingly attractive high salinity anthropogenic stream that is otherwise wasted, actual feasibility hinges on the appropriate pairing with a suitable low salinity stream. Engineered solutions are foulant-free and can be thermally regenerative for application in low-temperature heat utilization. Alternatively, PRO, RED, and CapMix can be coupled with their analog separation process (reverse osmosis, electrodialysis, and capacitive deionization, respectively) in salinity gradient flow batteries for energy storage in chemical potential of the engineered solutions. Rigorous techno-economic assessments can more clearly identify the prospects of low-grade heat conversion and large-scale energy storage. While research attention is squarely focused on efficiency and power improvements, efforts to mitigate fouling and lower membrane and electrode cost will be equally important to reduce levelized cost of salinity gradient energy production and, thus, boost PRO, RED, and CapMix power generation to be competitive with other renewable technologies. Cognizance of the recent key developments and technical progress on the different technological fronts can help steer the strategic advancement of salinity gradient as a sustainable energy source.


Also Published In

Environmental Science and Technology

More About This Work

Academic Units
Earth and Environmental Engineering
Published Here
November 23, 2016