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Clemson University Sharpens Focus on Water and Energy Challenges

Growing concerns about water scarcity and climate change have given rise to a new branch of research that has found its way to Clemson University and could help deal with some the globe’s biggest environmental challenges.

by Paul Alongi
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David LadnerDavid Ladner adjusts water-purifying equipment at the L.G. Rich Environmental Laboratory at Clemson.Clemson UniversityAbout 40 faculty members have joined Clemson’s Water-Energy Consortium to more closely examine how water and energy systems can be made more sustainable.

Members are on the hunt to fund a variety of research projects, including some already under way.

One project that has already begun and could be expanded is focused on generating a new form of renewable energy where rivers flow into the sea. When two streams of different salinity mix, it creates energy.

“All the energy that is being lost— which is an incredible amount of energy — can be gained back by putting a membrane in between,” said Scott Husson, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

The consortium Monday unveiled a website that members hope will shine a light on its work and attract new partners in government, academia and industry.

The new push comes in the wake of a July report from the U.S. Department of Energy that calls for more research into the “water-energy nexus.”

Gary Amy, the consortium’s coordinator and Dean Distinguished Professor in environmental engineering and Earth sciences, said the group is the only one of its kind.

“No other entity like this is trying to address the challenges and capitalize on the opportunities found in the water-energy nexus,” he said. “Clemson could be at the center of an effort that involves partners from around the world.”

The “nexus” is how the fates of water and energy are intertwined.

Water is needed to cool power plants, produce hydropower and extract oil and natural gas from the Earth. Meanwhile, energy is used to pump, heat, cool, treat and deliver water.

The idea behind the consortium is that combining knowledge and talents of researchers from varied backgrounds could help lead to the next big breakthrough.

Husson has already begun work with David Ladner, an assistant professor of environmental engineering and Earth sciences. They are developing new membranes for pressure-retarded osmosis (PRO), an emerging type of power generation.

The membrane would allow water to pass through, but not salt. As a result of osmosis, freshwater would naturally go through the membrane to balance the saltier side, creating pressure that could drive a turbine to generate electricity.

One of the primary challenges, though, is creating a membrane that is both thin and strong. That is where Husson and Ladner are focusing their efforts.

Some work in this area has been done around the world, with limited success. Statkraft, a state-owned electric company in Norway, opened a PRO plant in 2009. The power output wasn’t economical, but the plant demonstrated the technology’s possibilities.

“It showed that there’s a lot of potential here and that if membranes could be developed that could be able to meet those standards, it could be one way to recover an incredible amount of energy,” Husson said.

Researchers are hoping that PRO could help remove one of the barriers to building more desalination plants.

Taking salt out of seawater requires an enormous amount of energy and has been cost-prohibitive for many communities. But if PRO works, it could help generate the energy needed to pump saltwater through membranes to create drinking water.

Ladner said energy could also be created with the salty brine that is produced by membranes at desalination plants. The brine now is discharged back into the ocean, but it could be an excellent salty-water source to send to PRO, creating energy.

“Treating water for zero- or low-energy would be ideal,” he said. “We’re looking for sustainable systems, things we can do not just for the next decade but for the next several decades and the next several centuries.”

Tanju Karanfil, the associate dean of research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering and Science, said Clemson is ideally positioned to take a leadership role in research that will help the world better manage its resources.

“Climate change, energy security and environmental responsibility are all at stake,” he said. “We’ve assembled the knowledge and expertise needed to address these important global challenges. With the right partnerships, we can find more sustainable ways to supply water and energy to a growing world.”