University of Connecticut professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering Jeff McCutcheon is a quarter finalist in the American-Made Challenges: Solar Desalination Prize administered by the U.S. Department of Energy.
High salinity brines from oil and gas production, mining and industrial wastewaters are challenging to treat with conventional desalination technologies. Scientists have been working on various techniques to use solar energy to drive desalination processes.
“A real opportunity for solar thermal distillation technology is in the treatment of brines that are not treatable by conventional desalination technologies, like reverse osmosis,” McCutcheon says.
McCutcheon is developing an approach to solar desalination that will make it significantly more efficient by allowing the system to operate at much higher temperatures.
Currently, most solar desalination systems use organic polymer membranes. These membranes cannot tolerate high temperatures, meaning the system is forced to operate at lower temperatures, making the evaporation process less efficient.
McCutcheon proposes to use a ceramic membrane which can withstand temperatures well in excess of 100 degrees Celsius. The use of ceramic membranes allows for the development of modular, smaller-scale systems that are more adaptable to various brine compositions and volumes.
“If you can create a more modular and mobile brine collector run off of solar energy, there’s a real opportunity to sell to industries that may need something that is adaptable and robust,” McCutcheon says.
While neither solar desalination systems nor ceramic membranes are new technologies, putting them together is novel.
This system will be an integral part of a zero-liquid discharge (ZLD) process, meaning the only products are water vapor, which can be condensed back into a clean liquid, and solids. This helps conserve water and makes it easier to discard or repurpose waste.
“These membranes could lower the cost and improve the modularity of ZLD processes.” McCutcheon says.
McCutcheon began this research through a grant originally awarded to the now-dissolved Fraunhofer USA Inc. Center for Energy Innovation. The Center has now transferred to UConn and is known as the Connecticut Center for Applied Separations Technologies. It is located at the Innovation Partnership Building at UConn Tech Park.
“With our existing Department of Energy grant, we found we could make this membrane work and now we have an opportunity to explore integration into a pilot-scale system,” says McCutcheon.
As he prepares for the semifinals, McCutcheon is assembling a team including researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, along with partners from the manufacturing industry.
“I really enjoy assembling teams with diverse technical and business backgrounds,” McCutcheon says. “I’m very happy with our national lab partners and industrial collaborators as the anchors for our team.”
If he advances to the later stages of the competition, McCutcheon and his team will work with national laboratories to prepare detailed plans for constructing their system. If they are selected as finalists, McCutcheon and his team will build their system and demonstrate it on real waters. The winner will receive $1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy.
McCutcheon says he is cautiously optimistic about his chances.
“Our technology is something new, yet relatively straightforward and easy” McCutcheon says. “We are addressing a very specific weakness of polymeric membrane systems and are in a good position to demonstrate the technology on a scale beyond the laboratory.