Dec 1, 2020

Rivers could generate thousands of nuclear power plants worth of energy, thanks to a new ‘blue’ membrane

Posted by in categories: chemistry, nanotechnology, nuclear energy

There are several ways to generate power from that mixing. And a couple of blue energy power plants have been built. But their high cost has prevented widespread adoption. All blue energy approaches rely on the fact that salts are composed of ions, or chemicals that harbor a positive or negative charge. In solids, the positive and negative charges attract one another, binding the ions together. (Table salt, for example, is a compound made from positively charged sodium ions bound to negatively charged chloride ions.) In water, these ions detach and can move independently.

By pumping the positive ions—like sodium or potassium—to the other side of a semipermeable membrane, researchers can create two pools of water: one with a positive charge, and one with a negative charge. If they then dunk electrodes in the pools and connect them with a wire, electrons will flow from the negatively charged to the positively charged side, generating electricity.

In 2013, French researchers made just such a membrane. They used a ceramic film of silicon nitride—commonly used in industry for electronics, cutting tools, and other uses—pierced by a single pore lined with a boron nitride nanotube (BNNT), a material being investigated for use in high-strength composites, among other things. Because BNNTs are highly negatively charged, the French team suspected they would prevent negatively charged ions in water from passing through the membrane (because similar electric charges repel one another). Their hunch was right. They found that when a membrane with a single BNNT was placed between fresh- and saltwater, the positive ions zipped from the salty side to the fresh side, but the negatively charged ions were mostly blocked.

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