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Ionic liquids enable lower-cost desalination with forward osmosis

By Scott Jenkins |

Membrane-based forward osmosis (FO) desalination could be a lower-cost alternative to conventional reverse osmosis (RO) technology, which can desalinate ocean water effectively, but requires electricity to drive the separation, and so remains expensive. Scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL; Berkeley, Calif.; www.lbl.gov) have developed an FO technology that addresses its inherent challenges, potentially lowering desalination energy costs. In FO desalination, the osmotic pressure gradient between a concentrated “draw” solution and a feed solution from which salt is to be removed drives water passively across a semi-permeable membrane (in RO, the salty feedwater is pumped against the gradient). Making FO viable requires a draw solution with enough osmotic potential to drive the salt/water separation, but that also allows easy and low-energy regeneration to separate the purified water from the salty draw solution. In engineering the draw solution, the LBL team used ionic liquids (ILs) from a class that is thermally responsive, and developed candidates with a unique property: a lower critical solution temperature (LCST). Facility director at LBL’s Molecular Foundry Jeff Urban explains: “Ordinary liquid mixtures…
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