Berkeley Lab scientists research use of ionic liquids for water desalination

Sunny Shen/Staff

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers have embarked on a path to uncover design rules for a new type of water desalination method, which may pave the way for more accessible desalination technologies in the future.

Berkeley Lab researchers Robert Kostecki, Jeffrey Urban, James Davies, David Suich and Hyungmook Kang, in addition to Idaho National Laboratory researcher Aaron Wilson, are the authors of a study that strives to uncover how a new type of chemical solute, ionic liquids, can transform the forward osmosis process of desalination.

Osmosis, one of the main processes of desalination, uses a semipermeable membrane to purify water by separating compounds from the water. The forward osmosis process, which the Berkeley Lab scientists are working with, requires the use of a draw solute. Traditionally, these solutes have been salts, but the Berkeley Lab research team has recently been working with a new type of chemical solute — ionic liquids — that can draw these compounds out at the atomic level.

“For us, the use of ionic liquids has a lot of promise,” Urban said in an email. “We’ve embarked on a path to uncover the rules of design for how these molecules attract water at the atomic scale and how to design them to pull more waters with them.”

Urban also highlighted possible ways to use energy from renewable resources to power the desalination process. This includes solar and geothermal energy, as well as “industrial waste heat generated by machines,” according to Kostecki in a Wednesday news release from Berkeley Lab.

The study’s research will also have a global impact by being highly beneficial to countries with abundant energy resources, especially if these countries are located near the ocean, according to Urban. He predicts that the ability to use renewable resources to power the desalination process will make desalination more accessible in the future, when water resources are in short supply.

“As traditional water resources grow more scarce, or competition for them for energy generation and agriculture increases, there will be pressure to find new ways to generate potable water, particularly in water stressed regions,” Urban said in an email. “Methods to use brackish and produced waters will, I believe, receive increased attention and need.”

In addition to this study, Berkeley Lab researchers are also taking other approaches to improving the desalination process through their Water-Energy Resilience Research Institute, or WERRI.

Among the projects listed on the WERRI website include studies on methods to lower the energy use of U.S. water treatment, predict groundwater transport and aquifer replenishment processes, and predict downstream water quantity and quality in watersheds as the climate changes.

“We have a very interdisciplinary, multifaceted approach to this folding in everyone from chemical engineers and chemists to physicists modeling atomic scale phenomena and civil engineers providing feedback on what is feasible for translation to the ‘real world,’ ” Urban said in an email.

Contact Selena Liu at [email protected].