Scientists cook up new recipes for taking salt out of seawater

July 31, 2019

As populations boom and chronic droughts persist, coastal cities like Carlsbad in Southern California have increasingly turned to ocean desalination to supplement a dwindling fresh water supply. Now scientists at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) investigating how to make desalination less expensive have hit on promising design rules for making so-called "thermally responsive" ionic liquids to separate water from salt.

Ionic liquids are a liquid salt that binds to water, making them useful in forward osmosis to separate contaminants from water. (See Berkeley Lab Q&A, "Moving Forward on Desalination") Even better are thermally responsive ionic liquids as they use thermal energy rather than electricity, which is required by conventional reverse osmosis (RO) desalination for the separation. The new Berkeley Lab study, published recently in the journal Nature Communications Chemistry, studied the chemical structures of several types of ionic liquid/water to determine what "recipe" would work best.

"The current state-of-the-art in RO desalination works very well, but the cost of RO desalination driven by electricity is prohibitive," said Robert Kostecki, co-corresponding author of the study. "Our study shows that the use of low-cost "free" heat - such as geothermal or solar heat or industrial waste heat generated by machines - combined with thermally responsive ionic liquids could offset a large fraction of costs that goes into current RO desalination technologies that solely rely on electricity."

Kostecki, deputy director of the Energy Storage and Distributed Resources (ESDR) Division in Berkeley Lab's Energy Technologies Area, partnered with co-corresponding author Jeff Urban, a staff scientist in Berkeley Lab's Molecular Foundry, to investigate the behavior of ionic liquids in water at the molecular level.

Using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and dynamic light scattering provided by researchers in the ESDR Division, as well as molecular dynamics simulation techniques at the Molecular Foundry, the team made an unexpected finding.

It was long thought that an effective ionic liquid separation relied on the overall ratio of organic components (parts of the ionic liquid that are neither positively or negatively charged) to its positively charged ions, explained Urban. But the Berkeley Lab team learned that the number of water molecules an ionic liquid can separate from seawater depends on the proximity of its organic components to its positively charged ions.

"This result was completely unexpected," Urban said. "With it, we now have rules of design for which atoms in ionic liquids are doing the hard work in desalination."

A decades-old membrane-based reverse osmosis technology originally developed at UCLA in the 1950s, is experiencing a resurgence - currently there are 11 desalination plants in California, and more have been proposed. Berkeley Lab scientists, through the Water-Energy Resilience Research Institute, are pursuing a range of technologies for improving the reliability of the U.S. water system, including advanced water treatments technologies such as desalination.

Because forward osmosis uses heat instead of electricity, the thermal energy can be provided by renewable sources such as geothermal and solar or industrial low-grade heat.

"Our study is an important step toward lowering the cost of desalination," added Kostecki. "It's also a great example of what's possible in the national lab system, where interdisciplinary collaborations between the basic sciences and applied sciences can lead to creative solutions to hard problems benefiting generations to come."

Also contributing to the study were researchers from UC Berkeley and Idaho National Laboratory. The Molecular Foundry is a DOE Office of Science User Facility that specializes in nanoscale science. This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
-end-
Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 13 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab's facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

DOE's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science.

DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.