Advancing Forward Osmosis for Energy-efficient Wastewater Treatment towards Enhanced Water Reuse and Resource Recovery
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Current treatment of wastewater can effectively remove the contaminants; however, the effluent is still not widely reused because of some undesired substances like pathogens and trace organic chemicals. To promote water reuse, membrane-based technologies have emerged as a robust and more efficient alternative to current treatment practice. Among these membrane processes, forward osmosis (FO) utilizes an osmotic pressure gradient across a semi-permeable membrane to reclaim high-quality water. Still, several key challenges remain to be addressed towards broader FO application, including energy-intensive draw regeneration to yield product water and salinity buildup in the feed solution. To bypass energy-intensive draw regeneration, commercial solid fertilizers was utilized as a regeneration-free draw solute (DS), harvesting fresh water towards direct agricultural irrigation. However, using nutrient-rich fertilizers as DS resulted in an elevated reverse solute flux (RSF). This RSF, known as the cross-membrane diffusion of DS to the feed solution, led to deteriorated solute buildup on the feed side, reduced osmotic driving force, increased fouling propensity, and higher operation cost. To effectively mitigate solute buildup while achieving energy-efficient water reclamation, a parallel electrodialysis (ED) device was integrated to FO for DS recovery in the feed solution. The salinity in the feed solution was consistently controlled below 1 mS cm-1 via the hybrid FO-ED system. Considering solute buildup is merely a consequence of RSF, direct control of RSF was further investigated via operational strategy (i.e., an electrolysis-assisted FO) and membrane modification (i.e., surface coating of zwitterion-functionalized carbon nanotubes). Significantly reduced RSF (> 50% reduction) was obtained in both approaches with minor energy/material investment. With two major bottlenecks being properly addressed for energy-efficient water reclamation, FO was further integrated with a microbial electrolysis cell (MEC) to achieve integrated nutrient-energy-water recovery from high-strength wastewater (i.e., the digestor centrate). The abovementioned research projects are among the earliest efforts to address multiple key challenges of FO during practical application, serving as a cornerstone to facilitate the transformation of current water/wastewater treatment plant to resource recovery hub in order to ensure global food-energy-water security.
General Audience Abstract
Exploring alternative water supply, for instance via reusing wastewater, will be essential to deal with the global water crisis. Current wastewater treatment can effectively remove the contaminants; however, the treated wastewater is still not widely reused due to the possible presence of residual contaminants. In recent years, membrane-based technologies have emerged as a promising treatment process to produce clean water. Among all available membrane technologies, forward osmosis (FO) takes advantage of the osmotic pressure difference across a special membrane to extract fresh water from a low-salinity FEED solution (for example, wastewater) to a high-salinity DRAW solution. The reclaimed fresh water can be reused for other applications. Still, the FO process is facing several critical challenges for broader applications. The first challenge is that additional energy is required to separate clean water from the diluted DRAW solution, leading to notably increased energy consumption for the FO process. To bypass this energy-intensive separation, commercial solid fertilizers was utilized as a separation-free DRAW solution for FO process. Once the clean water is extracted to the DRAW solution (fertilizer), the diluted fertilizer solution together with the fresh water can be directly used for agricultural irrigation. The second challenge is that, when fertilizer is applied as the DRAW solution, nutrient rich fertilizers can penetrate the FO membrane and escape to the FEED solution (wastewater). This phenomenon is known as the reverse solute flux (RSF). RSF can result in many adverse effects, such as wastewater contamination and increased operational cost. To prevent this, we used an additional device named electrodialysis to effectively recapture the “escaped” fertilizers in the FEED solution. Besides this indirect approach to recover escaped fertilizers, we also investigated direct approaches to control RSF, including operational strategy and membrane modification. With two major challenges being properly addressed for energy-efficient water reclamation, FO was further combined with a microbial electrolysis cell (MEC) to achieve multiple resource recovery from wastewater, including water, nutrient, and energy components. The above mentioned research projects are among the earliest efforts to address multiple key challenges of FO during water and resource recovery from wastewater to ensure global food-energy-water security.
- Doctoral Dissertations