Quantifying the potential of ultra-permeable membranes for water desalination†
In the face of growing water scarcity, it is critical to understand the potential of saltwater desalination as a long-term water supply option. Recent studies have highlighted the promise of new membrane materials that could desalinate water while exhibiting far greater permeability than conventional reverse osmosis (RO) membranes, but the question remains whether higher permeability can translate into significant reductions in the cost of desalinating water. Here, we address a critical question by evaluating the potential of such ultra-permeable membranes (UPMs) to improve the performance and cost of RO. By modeling the mass transport inside RO pressure vessels, we quantify how much a tripling in the water permeability of a membrane would reduce the energy consumption or the number of required pressure vessels for a given RO plant. We find that a tripling in permeability would allow for 44% fewer pressure vessels or 15% less energy for a seawater RO plant with a given capacity and recovery ratio. Moreover, a tripling in permeability would result in 63% fewer pressure vessels or 46% less energy for brackish water RO. However, we also find that the energy savings of UPMs exhibit a law of diminishing returns due to thermodynamics and concentration polarization at the membrane surface.