Advancing Forward Osmosis for Energy-efficient Wastewater Treatment towards Enhanced Water Reuse and Resource Recovery


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Virginia Tech


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.



Forward Osmosis, Wastewater Treatment, Water Reuse, Resource Recovery, Energy Analysis, Reverse Solute Flux