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Reverse electrodialysis using Nafion™ membranes to produce renewable energy

In the order to address the global need for renewable and clean energy sources, salinity-gradient energy harvested by reverse electrodialysis (RED) is attracting significant interest in recent years. In addition, brine solution coming from seawater desalination is currently considered as a waste; however thanks to its high salinity it can be exploited as a valuable resource to feed RED. RED is an engineered adaptation of nature’s osmotic energy production where ions flow pass the cell membrane in order to produce the universal biological currency ATP. This energy is also harvested by the RED technology.

Now, more than ever there is need for sustainable and environmentally friendly technological solutions in order to keep up with ever growing demand for clean water and energy. The traditional linear way “produce and throw away” does no longer serve the society anymore and the new approach of circular economy has take a place, where any waste can be considered as a valuable resource for another process. In this respect, reverse electrodialysis is a promising electromembrane-based technology to generate power from concentrated solutions by harvesting the Gibbs free energy of mixing the solutions with different salinity. In particular, brine solutions produced in desalination plants, which is currently considered as a waste, can be used as concentrated streams in RED stack.

Avci et al. of the University of Calabria, Italy, have recently published their solution for brine disposal using RED-stack. They have realized that in order to maximize generated power, the high permselectivity and ion conductivity of membrane components in RED are essential. Although Nafion™ membranes are among the most prominent commercial cation exchange membrane solutions for electrochemical applications, no study has been done in its utilization toward RED processes. This was the first reported RED stack using Nafion™ membranes.

A typical RED unit is similar to an electrodialysis (ED) unit, which is a commercialized technology. ED uses a feed solution and the electrical energy, while producing concentrate and dilute, separately. On the other side, RED uses concentrated and dilute solutions that are mixed together in a controlled manner in order to produce spontaneously electrical energy. In a RED stack, repeating cells comprised of alternating cation and anion exchange membranes that are selective for anions and cations. The salinity gradient over each ion exchange membrane creates a voltage difference which is the driving force for the process. The ion exchange membranes are one of the most important components of a RED stack.

The performance of Nafion™ membranes (Nafion™ 117 and Nafion™ 115) have been evaluated under a high salinity gradient conditions for the possible application in RED. In order to simulate the natural environments of RED operation, NaCl solution as well as multicomponent NaCl + MgCl2 have been tested.

Gross power density under high salinity gradient and the effect of Mg2+ on the efficiency in energy conversion have been evaluated in single cell RED using Nafion™ 117, Nafion™ 115, CMX and Fuji-CEM-80050 as cation exchange membranes. Two commercial cation exchange membranes – CMX and Fuji-CEM 80050, frequently used for RED applications, have served as benchmark.

The results show that under the condition of 0.5 M / 4.0 M NaCl solutions, the highest Pd,max was achieved using Nafion™ membrane. This result is attributed to their outstanding permselectivity compared to other CEMs. In the presence of Mg2+ ions, Pd,max reduction of 17 and 20% for Nafion™ 115 and Nafion™ 117 were recorded, respectively. Both membranes maintained their low resistance; however a loss in permselectivity was measured under this condition. Even though, it was reported that Nafion™ membranes outperformed other commercial membranes such as CMX and Fuji-CEM-80050 for RED application.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

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Global wastewater resources estimated

In our last post on water quality in China, we pointed out a study that shows how improved wastewater treatment has a positive effect on the environment and ultimately on public health. However, wastewater treatment requires sophisticated and costly infrastructure. This is not available everywhere. However, extracting resources from wastewater can offset some of the costs incurred by plant construction and operation. The question is how much of a resource is wastewater.

A recent study published in the journal Natural Resources Forum tries to answer that question. It is the first to estimate how much wastewater all cities on Earth produce each year. The amount is enormous, as the authors say. There are currently 380 billion cubic meters of wastewater per year worldwide. The authors omitted only 5% of urban areas by population.

The most important resources in wastewater are energy, nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, and the water itself. In municipal wastewater treatment plants they come from human excretions. In industry and agriculture they are remnants of the production process. The team calculated how much of the nutrient resources in the municipal wastewater is likely to end up in the global wastewater stream. The researchers come to a total number of 26 million tons per year. That is almost eighty times the weight of the Empire State Building in New York.

If one would recover the entire nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium load, one could theoretically cover 13% of the global fertilizer requirement. The team assumed that the wastewater volume will likely continue to increase, because the world’s population, urbanization and living standards are also increasing. They further estimate that in 2050 there will be almost 50% more wastewater than in 2015. It will be necessary to treat as much as possible and to make greater use of the nutrients in that wastewater! As we pointed out in our previous post, wastewater is more and more causing environmental and public health problems.

There is also energy in wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants industrialized countries have been using them in the form of biogas for a long time. Most wastewater treatment plants ferment sewage sludge in large anaerobic digesters and use them to produce methane. As a result, some plants are now energy self-sufficient.

The authors calculated the energy potential that lies hidden in the wastewater of all cities worldwide. In principle, the energy is sufficient to supply 500 to 600 million average consumers with electricity. The only problems are: wastewater treatment and energy technology are expensive, and therefore hardly used in non-industrialized countries. According to the scientists, this will change. Occasionally, this is already happening.

Singapore is a prominent example. Wastewater is treated there so intensively that it is fed back into the normal water network. In Jordan, the wastewater from the cities of Amman and Zerqa goes to the municipal wastewater treatment plant by gravitation. There, small turbines are installed in the canals, which have been supplying energy ever since their construction. Such projects send out a signals that resource recovery is possible and make wastewater treatment more efficient and less costly.

The Frontis technology is based on microbial electrolysis which combines many of the steps in wastewater treatment plants in one single reactor, recovering nutrients as well as energy.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

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China has improved inland surface water quality

During the last decades, China has achieved rapid development in technology and economics, however at a huge environmental cost. The deterioration of inland surface water quality is considered one of the most serious environmental threats to ecosystem and ultimately public health.

Since 2001, China made major efforts to tighten the application of environmental rules in order to stop water pollution emitted by cities, farm and industry. According to the government’s “10th National Five-Year Plan”, large investments were made for pollution control and wastewater discharge regulation systems.

Small research studies showed that with this campaign, Chinese’s lakes and rivers got cleaner. Since then water quality has improved significantly − however, other parts of country still have problems with polluted water.

Now, a team of researchers of the at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, has published one of the most comprehensive national investigation of China’s surface water quality in the renown journal Science. The researchers investigated all regions of the country to learn how surface water responds to multiple driving forces over time and space. Their report covers the assessment of water quality by means of three parameters: dissolved oxygen level (DO), chemical oxygen demand (COD) and ammonium nitrogen (N) in inland surface waters. They performed monthly site-level measurements at major Chinese rivers and lakes across the country between 2003 and 2017.

Due to regional variations in China’s inland water quality as well as the dynamics in multiple anthropogenic pollution sources, such studies are crucially important to identify the necessary regulation measures and water quality improvement policies adapted to ecosystem sustainability at all diverse country regions.

The results show that during the past 15 years, annual mean pollution concentration has declined across the country at significant linear rates or was maintained at acceptable levels. Consequently, the annual percentage of water quality have increased by 1.77% for COD, 1.83% for N and 1.45% for DO per year. While China has not yet implemented environmental water standards, the study shows that China’s water quality is improving nonetheless.

The best news is that the notoriously high pollution levels have declined as cities and industry have worked to clean up and reduce their discharges. According to the authors, the most visible alleviation was noticed in northern China, while in the western region of the country water quality remained at their low pollution level throughout the observation period. The reason is likely that pollution is caused by human activity, of which there is less in those parts of the country.

Despite large efforts toward decreased pollution discharges, urban areas are still considered as the major pollution centers. These areas face additional pressure due to the constant migration and fast urbanization of the rural regions. Especially in northern China, with high-density human activity and exploding urbanization, achieving and maintaining a clean environment is a permanent struggle.

To further reduce pollution and improve water quality, the authors recommend that future activities focus on water management systems and the water pollution control. For both, the central government issued guidelines to control and improve water use and pollution discharge at regional and national levels for 2020 and 2030.

At Frontis Energy, we certainly support activities in China that help improving the countries water quality and public health. The Frontis technology gives its user an incentive to to clean wastewater before discharge by extracting its energy. Our patent pending solutions are based on microbial electrolysis which helps to extract energy from wastewater and apply in particular to China.

Mima Varničić, 2020

(Photo: Gil Dekel / Pixabay)

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Ammonia energy storage #2

Recently, we reported on plans by Australian entrepreneurs and their government to use ammonia (NH3) to store excess wind energy. We proposed converting ammonia and CO2 from wastewater into methane gas (CH4), because it is more stable and easier to transport. The procedure follows the chemical equation:

8 NH3 + 3 CO2 → 4 N2 + 3 CH4 + 6 H2O

Now we have published a scientific article in the online magazine Frontiers in Energy Research where we show that the process is thermodynamically possible and does indeed occur. Methanogenic microbes in anaerobic digester sludge remove the hydrogen (H2) formed by electrolysis from the reaction equilibrium. As a result, the redox potentials of the oxidative (N2/NH3) and the reductive (CO2/CH4) half-reactions come so close that the process becomes spontaneous. It requires a catalyst in the form of wastewater microbes.

Pourbaix diagram of ammonium oxidation, hydrogen formation and CO2 reduction. At pH 7 and higher, the oxidation of ammonium coupled to methanogenesis becomes thermodynamically possible.

To prove our idea, we first searched for the right microbes that could carry out ammonia oxidation. For our experiments in microbial electrolysis cells we used microorganisms from sediments of the Atlantic Ocean off Namibia as starter cultures. Marine sediments are particularly suitable because they are relatively rich in ammonia, free from oxygen (O2) and contain less organic carbon than other ammonia-rich environments. Excluding oxygen is important because it used by ammonia-oxidizing microbes in a process called nitrification:

2 NH3+ + 3 O2 → 2 NO2 + 2 H+ + 2 H2O

Nitrification would have caused an electrochemical short circuit, as the electrons are transferred from the ammonia directly to the oxygen. This would have bypassed the anode (the positive electron accepting electrode) and stored the energy of the ammonia in the water − where it is useless. This is because, anodic water oxidation consumes much more energy than the oxidation of ammonia. In addition, precious metals are often necessary for water oxidation. Without producing oxygen at the anode, we were able to show that the oxidation of ammonium (the dissolved form of ammonia) is coupled to the production of hydrogen.

Oxidation of ammonium to nitrogen gas is coupled to hydrogen production in microbial electrolysis reactors. The applied potentials are +550 mV to +150 mV

It was important that the electrochemical potential at the anode was more negative than the +820 mV required for water oxidation. For this purpose, we used a potentiostat that kept the electrochemical potential constant between +550 mV and +150 mV. At all these potentials, N2 was produced at the anode and H2 at the cathode. Since the only source of electrons in the anode compartment was ammonium, the electrons for hydrogen production could come only from the ammonium oxidation. In addition, ammonium was also the only nitrogen source for the production of N2. As a result, the processes would be coupled.

In the next step, we wanted to show that this process also has a useful application. Nitrogen compounds are often found in wastewater. These compounds consist predominantly of ammonium. Among them are also drugs and their degradation products. At the same time, 1-2% of the energy produced worldwide is consumed in the Haber-Bosch process. In the Haber-Bosch process N2 is extracted from the air to produce nitrogen fertilizer. Another 3% of our energy is then used to remove the same nitrogen from our wastewater. This senseless waste of energy emits 5% of our greenhouse gases. In contrast, wastewater treatment plants could be net energy generators. In fact, a small part of the energy of wastewater has been recovered as biogas for more than a century. During biogas production, organic material from anaerobic digester sludge is decomposed by microbial communities and converted into methane:

H3C−COO + H+ + H2O → CH4 + HCO3 + H+; ∆G°’ = −31 kJ/mol (CH4)

The reaction produces CO2 and methane at a ratio of 1:1. Unfortunately, the CO2 in the biogas makes it almost worthless. As a result, biogas is often flared off, especially in places where natural gas is cheap. The removal of CO2 would greatly enhance the product and can be achieved using CO2 scrubbers. Even more reduced carbon sources can shift the ratio of CO2 to CH4. Nevertheless, CO2 would remain in biogas. Adding hydrogen to anaerobic digesters solves this problem technically. The process is called biogas upgrading. Hydrogen could be produced by electrolysis:

2 H2O → 2 H2 + O2; ∆G°’ = +237 kJ/mol (H2)

Electrolysis of water, however, is expensive and requires higher energy input. The reason is that the electrolysis of water takes place at a relatively high voltage of 1.23 V. One way to get around this is to replace the water by ammonium:

2 NH4+ → N2 + 2 H+ + 3 H2; ∆G°’ = +40 kJ/mol (H2)

With ammonium, the reaction takes place at only 136 mV, which saves the respective amount of energy. Thus, and with suitable catalysts, ammonium could serve as a reducing agent for hydrogen production. Microorganisms in the wastewater could be such catalysts. Moreover, without oxygen, methanogens become active in the wastewater and consume the produced hydrogen:

4 H2 + HCO3 + H+ → CH4 + 3 H2O; ∆G°’ = –34 kJ/mol (H2)

The methanogenic reaction keeps the hydrogen concentration so low (usually below 10 Pa) that the ammonium oxidation proceeds spontaneously, i.e. with energy gain:

8 NH4+ + 3 HCO3 → 4 N2 + 3 CH4 + 5 H+ + 9 H2O; ∆G°’ = −30 kJ/mol (CH4)

This is exactly the reaction described above. Bioelectrical methanogens grow at cathodes and belong to the genus Methanobacterium. Members of this genus thrive at low H2 concentrations.

The low energy gain is due to the small potential difference of ΔEh = +33 mV of CO2 reduction compared to the ammonium oxidation (see Pourbaix diagram above). The energy captured is barely sufficient for ADP phosphorylationG°’ = +31 kJ/mol). In addition, the nitrogen bond energy is innately high, which requires strong oxidants such as O2 (nitrification) or nitrite (anammox) to break them.

Instead of strong oxidizing agents, an anode may provide the activation energy for the ammonium oxidation, for example when poised at +500 mV. However, such positive redox potentials do not occur naturally in anaerobic environments. Therefore, we tested whether the ammonium oxidation can be coupled to the hydrogenotrophic methanogenesis by offering a positive electrode potential without O2. Indeed, we demonstrated this in our article and have filed a patent application. With our method one could, for example, profitably remove ammonia from industrial wastewater. It is also suitable for energy storage when e.g. Ammonia synthesized using excess wind energy.