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Converting seawater into drinkable water is now more sustainable

Researchers at NYU Tandon School of Engineering have made a significant advancement in addressing the global water crisis. The team is using redox flow desalination (RFD) technology to convert seawater into drinkable water, while also harnessing renewable energy. 

Led by Dr. André Taylor, professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, the research aims for both effective water desalination and sustainable energy storage. 

Study significance 

“Although water is abundant on Earth, global statistics estimate that up to 66% of the world’s population suffers from water insecurity,” wrote the study authors. “Worse, the challenge of securing adequate drinkable water is expected to worsen due to the combined effects of climate change and population growth.” 

“In regions lacking access to suitable water sources, seawater desalination plays a crucial role in providing potable water.”

Dual benefits 

The researchers documented a 20% increase in the RFD system’s salt removal rate and a reduction in energy demand.  

“By seamlessly integrating energy storage and desalination, our vision is to create a sustainable and efficient solution that not only meets the growing demand for freshwater but also champions environmental conservation and renewable energy integration.”

Storing excess energy 

RFD’s inherent versatility lies in its ability to store excess energy from intermittent renewable sources, like solar and wind, and release it during peak demand. This aligns well with the fluctuating energy requirements of desalination processes, making RFD an eco-friendly alternative to traditional desalination methods. 

“The success of this project is attributed to the ingenuity and perseverance of Stephen Akwei Maclean, the paper’s first author and a NYU Tandon PhD candidate in chemical and biomolecular engineering,” said Dr. Taylor. “He demonstrated exceptional skill by designing the system architecture using advanced 3D printing technology available at the NYU Maker Space.”

How the technology works

The redox flow desalination system works by dividing incoming seawater into two streams, the salinating and the desalinating streams. Alongside these, two additional channels contain the electrolyte and redox molecule. The system uses a cation exchange membrane (CEM) or an anion exchange membrane (AEM) for effective separation. 

In this setup, ions and electrons move through the channels, resulting in a freshwater stream and a concentrated brine stream. “We can control the incoming seawater residence time to produce drinkable water by operating the system in a single pass or batch mode,” said Maclean.

Sustainable energy 

Moreover, the RFD system can function in reverse, converting the stored chemical energy back into renewable electricity. This unique feature enables RFD systems to act as a kind of “battery,” capturing and releasing energy as needed, thus contributing to a more sustainable energy landscape.

While the technology is promising, further research is needed to refine the redox flow desalination process, making it more cost-effective. However, the NYU Tandon team’s findings mark a critical step forward in the quest for efficient desalination methods, especially as climate change and population growth exacerbate water scarcity.

The success of this project aligns with the mission of DC-MUSE, which focuses on reducing the environmental impact of chemical processes through renewable energy. 

The study is published in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science

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