Water and energy, a growing concern

June 23, 2015

HussonDr. Scott Husson (ChBE) and Dr. David Ladner (EEES) are collaborating on research addressing the “water-energy nexus” as members of Clemson’s Water-Energy Consortium (WEC). The WEC comprises over 40 Clemson faculty members whose mission is to “contribute research leading to technology innovations in water systems with a minimization of energy and carbon footprints, as well as energy systems with a minimization of water and carbon footprints.”

Drs. Husson and Ladner are focused on harnessing the energy that is released when low-salinity waters mix with high-salinity waters, such as when rivers reach the ocean. This “blue energy” can be harvested through a membrane process called pressure retarded osmosis (PRO), which involves water transport from a low-salinity source through a semipermeable membrane to a high-salinity draw solution. Hydraulic pressure in the draw solution compartment increases due to continuous inflow of large volumes of water from the feed solution. Mechanical power equal to the product of hydraulic pressure and water transport rate can be converted to electrical power using hydro-turbines. To make PRO feasible, more effective membranes are needed. The membranes must have high mechanical strength to withstand operational stresses, yet they must be thin and permeable to allow rapid water transport.

To address this challenge, the research team is developing thin-film composite membranes that incorporate unique nanomaterials. Dr. Husson notes that “the research is providing a deep understanding of how chemical functionalization of the membranes and nanomaterial additives impacts their mechanical properties and performance.” The project also seeks to improve public science literacy among individuals living in Upstate South Carolina and Western North Carolina by using entertainment media education. Through a partnership with a local television program that serves over 800,000 households in the nation’s 36th largest market, the team is developing on-air science demonstrations and web-based science videos to reach a large and highly diverse audience.

It is exciting research that is attracting national attention. Says Dr. Husson,“Clean and sustainable power sources are in demand due to increasing energy consumption, depletion of fossil fuels, environmental concerns, and increases in the cost of fossil-fuel-based energy. There remains a need for development of new, emerging alternative energy sources. PRO is one ‘untapped’ source.”

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