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Researchers demonstrate concept desalination battery

Schematic representation of the working principle behind a complete cycle of the desalination battery, showing how energy extraction can be accomplished: step 1, desalination; step 2, removal of the desalinated water and inlet of seawater; step 3, discharge of Na+ and Cl in seawater; step 4, exchange to new seawater. Credit: ACS, Pasta et al. Click to enlarge.

A team from Stanford University and Ruhr-Universität Bochum have demonstrated the novel concept of a “desalination battery” that uses an electrical energy input to extract sodium and chloride ions from seawater and to generate fresh water. Their paper is published in the ACS journal Nano Letters.

The desalination battery operates by performing cycles in reverse on the team’s mixing entropy battery (earlier post), which can extract energy from the salinity difference between seawater and river water and store it as useful electrochemical energy. The desalination battery operates in a similar way to capacitive desalination techniques, but instead of storing charge in the electrical double layer (built at the surface of the electrode) it is held in the chemical bonds (bulk of the electrode material).

Battery electrodes offer higher specific capacity and lower self-discharge than capacitive electrodes, the team notes.

At the current growth rate, humans will consume 90% of available fresh water by 2025, by which time the population living in water-stressed areas is expected to increase to 3.9 billion. Seawater desalination is becoming a feasible source for fresh water, free from local and global variations in rainfall. For this reason, the use of seawater desalination has steadily increased in recent years.

Seawater desalination processes require electric or thermal energy to separate saline seawater into two streams, a fresh water stream containing a low concentration of dissolved salts and a concentrated brine stream. A variety of desalination technologies have been developed over the years. Reverse osmosis requires a large electrical energy input, which accounts for 44% of its cost, and it is based on selective membranes, which are prone to fouling and require frequent replacement. Recent research on high-flux membranes based on carbon nanotubes could potentially reduce the energy consumption, while alternative electrical-based desalination technology such as ion concentration polarization in nanodevices can potentially avoid the fouling.

Thermal energy based multistage flash distillation requires energy intensive heating to temperatures above 90 °C, accounts for 50% of its cost. Multiple effect distillation is gaining popularity due to its higher efficiency and lower top brine temperatures (about 70 °C) than multistage flash technology. Forward osmosis is a promising new process that utilizes lower temperatures (60 °C) but still requires the use of membranes. Solvent extraction using directional solvents like decanoic acid at mild temperatures (30−50 °C) has been demonstrated recently by Bajpayee and co-workers.

Previous electrochemical approaches relying on the electrical double-layer built at the surface of high surface area carbonaceous electrodes are capacitive deionization (CDI) and the newly developed capacitive double layer expansion (CDLE). Despite these recent advances, the 50−80% target for reduction in desalination costs by 2020 set by the National Research Council roadmap will not be achieved by incremental improvements to existing technologies, and therefore, a new approach is needed.

—Pasta et al.

The desalination battery includes a Na2-xMn5O10 nanorod positive electrode and Ag/AgCl negative electrode. In their paper, the team reports demonstrating an energy consumption of 0.29 Wh l–1 for the removal of 25% salt using this novel desalination battery, which is promising when compared to reverse osmosis ( 0.2 Wh l–1), the most efficient technique presently available.

A four-step charge/discharge process allows the electrodes to separate seawater into fresh water and brine streams:

  1. Fully charged electrodes, which do not contain mobile sodium or chloride ions when charged, are immersed in seawater. A constant current is then applied in order to remove the ions from the solution.

  2. The fresh water solution in the cell is extracted and then replaced with additional seawater.

  3. The electrodes are then recharged in this solution, releasing ions and creating brine

  4. The brine solution is replaced with new seawater, and the desalination battery is ready for the next cycle.

Fresh water is produced during the initial discharge of the electrodes (Steps 1−2), while recharging the electrodes results in the production of a brine stream (Steps 3−4).

The desalination battery has simple construction, uses readily available materials, has a promising energy efficiency, operates at room temperature with fewer corrosion problems than existing desalination technology, and it could potentially be Na+ and Cl selective, which would end the need for resalination. Its primary limitation of low total ion extraction arises from the low specific charge capacity of the NMO sodium ion electrode (35 mAh g−1 vs an average value of 160 mAh g−1 for Li- intercalating cathodes). This low charge capacity limits the volume of water that can be desalinated within one cycle, and therefore the overall efficiency of desalination. However, the battery research community has recently shown increasing interest in aqueous sodium ion batteries for grid scale power storage applications.

In the near future, higher capacity sodium ion electrodes, as well as improved chloride electrodes will make the desalination battery a feasible method for seawater desalination...The work reported here demonstrates the concept of a desalination battery. Further developments will result in a versatile technology for the desalination of seawater, either independently or through integration with other desalination methods.

—Pasta et al.


  • Mauro Pasta, Colin D. Wessells, Yi Cui, and Fabio La Mantia (2012) A Desalination Battery. Nano Letters doi: 10.1021/nl203889e



Problem of dealing with brine still remains a big issue.


A highly economical desalination battery could change deserts to farms.


Concentrated solar thermal creates fresh water and electricity using the sun.


Kelly, yes, but didn't Saudi Arabia just give up on desal-irrigated farming and is buying farming land in Africa instead?


In California, farming uses 85% of the fresh water. It is one thing to provide fresh water for people and another entirely to provide the amount of fresh water that farming requires.


SJC is absolutely correct. I think we're more likely to see things like the self-irrigating greenhouses using cold seawater both to provide humidity via evaporation and fresh water by condensation of the humidity from the exhaust air stream. Desalination for agriculture is going to require very, very cheap energy, and electricity seems unlikely to get that cheap in the near future.


Drip irrigation can help conserve water, but it costs. It is hard to beat the cost advantage of rainfall coming at the proper time for the crop you have planted.


Right E-P;

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