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FORWARD OSMOSIS: A SUSTAINABLE DESALINATION TECHNOLOGY

Wahyu Triwahyudi
Plan International Indonesia Menara Duta Building 2nd Floor Jl. HR Rasuna Said Kav. B-9 Kuningan Jakarta Selatan, Indonesia wahyu.triwahyudi@plan-international.org

Abstract
With a virtually unlimited supply of seawater to draw from, desalination, the process of removing salts from seawater, has recently emerged as a new source of freshwater. Forward Osmosis (FO) is now being considered as a cutting edge of desalination technology. FO desalination works with simply following osmotic pressure principle to generate the filtering process of seawater. The membrane in FO technology is durable and effective in filtering seawater to generate freshwater. As the final step, freshwater will then be heated at low temperature to result potable water. Combination of the incorporation of osmotic pressure principle and low temperature heating makes FO technology less expensive than its predecessors, Reverse Osmosis and Distillation. Therefore, the further development of FO technology will bring advantage to developing countries in utilizing seawater as a source of drinking water, particularly for Indonesia where seawater is abundant. More important, in regard to its simplicity and affordability, FO could be sustainably used in Indonesia. Keywords: Desalination, Osmosis, Reverse Osmosis

1. Introduction Natural sources of freshwater are scarce. Only 2% of water on the planet is freshwater, while 98% is seawater. Over three quarters of earths freshwater is locked up in polar ice caps and glaciers making it unavailable for human use. Much of the available freshwater is deep underground or surface water susceptible to pollution. These facts combined with exponential population growth, escalated living standards, and increased agriculture and industrial activities indicate that, amidst a shortage, the demand for freshwater is rising. With a virtually unlimited supply of seawater to draw from, desalination, the process of removing salts from seawater, has recently emerged as a new source of freshwater. In case of Indonesia, country in which sea surface is 65% of its area, desalination will be a best emerging technology to overcome freshwater shortage. However, the uses of large scale of desalination technologies are now very limited to developed countries only due to its complexity and high cost of investment. This paper examines the cutting edge of desalination technology that can diminish its complexity and investment cost. It is about Forward Osmosis (FO) desalination technology. FO desalination works with simply following osmotic pressure principle to generate the filtering process of seawater. The membrane in FO technology is durable and effective in filtering seawater to generate freshwater. As the final step, freshwater will then be heated at low temperature to result potable water. Combination of the incorporation of osmotic pressure principle and low temperature heating makes FO technology less expensive than its predecessors, Reverse Osmosis and Distillation. Therefore, the further development of FO technology will bring advantage to developing countries in utilizing seawater as a source of drinking water, particularly for Indonesia where seawater is abundant. More important, in regard to its simplicity and affordability, FO could be sustainably used in Indonesia.

2. Methods Most of previous studies discussed individually part of FO technology, such as membrane selection, draw solution, concentration polarization, etc. This study was conducted through reviewing several literatures and publications related to study and research of FO technology. Compilation of those topics within this paper would give reader a full picture of FO technology as a whole, including its application and comparison with other desalination technologies. Important

information from several peer-reviewed papers was captured within this study to present logical flow of discussion regarding FO technology. As this study conducted literature reviews, no necessary laboratory experiment was carried out.

3. Result and Discussion


With issues of energy use and water recovery at the forefront of the desalination debate, many are investigating an alternative. FO is a membrane based separation process, like RO, which relies on the semi-permeable character of a membrane to remove salt. However, unlike RO, the driving force for separation is osmotic pressure, not hydraulic pressure. Like MSF distillation, FO also involves heating process at the end of recovery process. Yet the heating relatively utilize low temperature than MSF distillation does. When hydraulic pressure application and high temperature are absent on the FO process, lower electricity requirement is the main advantage of FO desalination technology. Forward Osmosis (FO): The Development of Membrane and Draw Solution Many attempts to use forward osmosis as a means of desalting seawater have been published in the past four decades. These methods principally involved the generation of an osmotic pressure difference across a semi-permeable membrane by use of a draw solution at the permeate side. The resulting osmotic pressure difference induces transport of water through the membrane from the feed (seawater) side to the permeate side (draw solution). A variety of methods to generate the osmotic pressure difference have been used. The relevant previous forward osmosis efforts for desalination that have been patented are discussed bellow. Elimelech and Batchelder [1] described a process of adding volatile solutes, such as sulfur dioxide, to seawater or freshwater to create a solution which may be used in a forward osmotic process to extract water from seawater. The suggested membrane to be used in this process was cellulosic in nature. Two years later, the expanded idea was describing a method of using sugar as a draw solution by combining FO and low pressure RO into a continuous process. Using a concentrated glucose solution as a draw solution, water is extracted from seawater by osmosis. The diluted glucose solution is fed to an RO unit, where a low pressure RO membrane separates potable water from the sucrose draw solution. The now concentrated sucrose solution is fed back to the FO membrane module where the process starts again. Recovery in this process is limited, however, due to a relatively low osmotic efficiency of sucrose. In 2005, combining all ideas that had been developed, McGinnis experimented the latest forward osmosis technology for desalination. He described a method of forward osmosis using a combination of draw solutions across several semipermeable membranes. This approach combined the ideas of draw solution recycle with an osmotically efficient draw solution to increase recovery. Seawater is heated and fed to the FO membrane unit where a heated solution of saturated potassium nitrate serves as the draw solution. The diluted draw solution is sent to a new chamber where it is cooled by incoming seawater, which is simultaneously heated to the appropriate feed temperature. Upon cooling, a significant portion of the KNO3 precipitates out of solution, reducing the osmotic pressure. Next, the diluted KNO3 solution is drawn to another FO unit, where dissolved SO2 acts as the draw solution. The dilute KNO3 solution has a low osmotic pressure in comparison with the saturated SO2 solution, and water diffuses across the membrane while the KNO3 is rejected. The sulfur dioxide is then removed through standard means, leaving potable water. The Draw Solution: Ammonium Bicarbonate The studies discussed above demonstrate that the primary obstacle to a feasible FO process is the lack of an appropriate draw solution. An effective draw solution solute must have very specific characteristics. It must have a high osmotic efficiency, meaning that it has to be highly soluble in water and have a low molecular weight in order to generate a high osmotic pressure. Higher osmotic pressure leads to higher water flux and feed water recovery. A goal of an ideal FO desalination process is to have a zero-liquid discharge (ZLD) configuration, requiring very high recoveries which are obtainable only through a large osmotic driving force. The draw solute must also be non-toxic as trace amounts may be present in the product water. In some cases, the solute is edible, as is the case with sucrose or fructose. These solutes, however, cannot generate the necessary osmotic pressures to achieve a ZLD recovery level of seawater. Chemical compatibility of the membrane is also a key concern as the draw solution can react or degrade the membrane. Most importantly, for processes involving the production of potable water without a comestible solute, the draw solute must easily and economically be separated and recycled. Using a draw solution of two highly soluble gases ammonia (NH3) and carbon dioxide (CO2) satisfies the ideal draw solution criteria discussed above. The concentrated draw solution is made by dissolving ammonium bicarbonate salt (NH4HCO3) in water. The high solubility in conjunction with a relatively low molecular weight of the salt leads to a very high osmotic efficiency. Calculated osmotic pressure as a function of draw solution (NH4HCO3) concentration is shown in figure bellow.

Picture 1. Osmotic pressure generated by NH4HCO3 at 50C (graph from McGinnis et. al. [2])

On picture above, the horizontal dashed lines represent osmotic pressures of the following feed waters: seawater, seawater undergoing 50% and 75% recovery. The calculation shows that osmotic pressures far greater than that of seawater can be generated with our draw solution, providing the necessary driving forces for high potable water flux and high recovery. Separation of the fresh product water from the draw solution can be achieved with relative ease. Upon moderate heating (near 60C), ammonium bicarbonate can be decomposed into ammonia and carbon dioxide gases. The gases can then be removed from solution by low-temperature distillation using relatively low energy. Other gas separation processes, such as membrane based technologies, can also be used. Configuration of Forward Osmosis Process Picture 2 below presents a schematic diagram of our novel FO desalination process. The saline feed water is fed to the forward osmosis unit which, in principle, can incorporate spiral wound or hollow fiber membrane modules. The feed water and draw solution flow tangent to the membrane in a crossflow mode. Through osmosis, water transports from the seawater across the salt rejecting membrane and into the NH4HCO3 draw solution. High osmotic pressure gradients can lead to a high recovery given appropriate staging of the process. Using concentrated draw solutions can lead to a ZLD configuration. The elimination of brine discharge provides a major environmental benefit for FO, compared to current RO technology. To yield potable water, the diluted draw solution is sent to a separation unit, comprising a distillation column or a membrane gas separation unit. The NH3 and CO2 are separated from the draw solution and recycled back to the FO unit. Because of the relatively low heat requirements of NH3 and CO2 removal, the separation stage can utilize waste steam which is a common byproduct of electricity production.

Picture 2. Schematic of the ammonia bicarbonate FO desalination process (picture from McGinnis et Al. [2])

Membrane for FO: Cellulose Triacetate Membrane Generally, any dense, non-porous, selectively permeable material can be used as a membrane for FO. Such membranes have been tested (in flat sheet and capillary configurations) in the past for various applications of FO. Early membrane researchers experimented with every type of membrane material available, including bladders of pigs, cattle, and fish; collodion (nitrocellulose); rubber; porcelain; and goldbeaters skin (Anderson [3]). During the 1990s, a special membrane for FO was developed by Osmotek Inc. (currently Hydration Technologies Inc. (HTI). This membrane has been tested in a wide variety of applications by different research groups. It is also used successfully in commercial applications of water purification for military, emergency relief, and recreational purposes. A cross-sectional SEM image of the membrane is shown in figure bellow.

Picture 3. A cross-sectional SEM image of HTIs FO membrane (picture from: McCutcheon [4])

Picture 3 above shows a cross-sectional SEM image of HTIs FO membrane. A polyester mesh is embedded within the polymer material for mechanical support. The membrane thickness is less than 50 m. This proprietary membrane is thought to be made of cellulose triacetate (CTA). It can be seen that the thickness of the membrane is less than 50 m and it is evident that the structure of the CTA FO membrane is quite different from standard RO membranes. RO membranes typically consist of a very thin active layer (less than 1m) and a thick porous support layer. The CTA FO membrane lacks a thick support layer. Instead, the embedded polyester mesh provides mechanical support. Results from various investigations indicate that the CTA FO membrane made by HTI is superior to RO membranes operated in FO mode. The major contributing factors are likely the relative thinness of the membrane and the lack of a fabric support layer (McCutcheon [4]). In summary, the desired characteristics of membranes for FO would be high density of the active layer for high solute rejection; a thin membrane with minimum porosity of the support layer for, higher water flux; hydrophilicity for enhanced flux and reduced membrane fouling; and high mechanical strength to sustain utilization without frequent membrane change. The development of improved semi-permeable membranes for FO is critical for advancing the field of FO. Membranes that can achieve high flux and salt rejection, and have high mechanical strength will lead to improved performance in current applications as well as development of new applications for FO. Concentration Polarization The water flux (flow of water per area of membrane) in osmotic-driven membrane processes is driven by osmotic pressure difference across the membrane. In such processes, the osmotic pressure difference across the membrane is much lower than the bulk osmotic pressure difference, which results in much lower water flux than expected (Elimelech [1]). The lower-than-expected water flux is often attributed to several membrane-associated transport phenomena. Specifically, two types of concentration polarization (CP) phenomena external CP and internal CP can take place in osmotic-driven membrane processes as discussed below. External Concentration Polarization In pressure-driven membrane processes, convective permeate flow causes a buildup of solute at the membrane active layer surface. Referred to as concentration polarization (CP), this phenomenon reduces permeate water flux due to increased osmotic pressure. When the feed solution flows on the active layer of the membrane, solutes build up at the active layer.

However, because water flux in FO is already low, the ability to diminish external CP by reducing flux is limited. Due to the low hydraulic pressure used in FO, membrane fouling induced by external CP has milder effects on water flux compared to the effects in pressure-driven membrane processes (RO). It has been shown that external CP plays a minor role in osmotic driven membrane processes and is not the main cause for the lower-than-expected water flux in such processes. Internal Concentration Polarization When an osmotic pressure gradient is established across a completely rejecting dense symmetric membrane, as depicted in Picture 4 bellow (fig.A), the driving force is the difference in osmotic pressures of the bulk solutions in the absence of external CP. In FO applications for desalination and water treatment, the active layer of the membrane faces the feed solution and the porous support layer faces the draw solution. As water permeates the active layer, the draw solution within the porous substructure becomes diluted. It can be clearly seen in figure B that the osmotic pressure difference between the bulk feed and bulk draw solution is higher than the osmotic pressure difference across the membrane (w) due to external CP and that the effective osmotic pressure driving force is even lower due to internal CP.

Figure A

Figure B

Picture 4. Illustrations of driving force profiles and osmotic gradient across the membrane (picture from McCutcheon [4])

Draw Solution Recovery: Single Distillation Column The simplest and lowest energy cost approach to solute recovery in the FO process is the use of a single vacuum distillation column (Picture 5). In this configuration, heat at temperatures as low as 40C is used in a reboiler to induce water vapor to rise in the distillation column as the dilute draw solution (introduced at the top of the column) cascades downward in counter-current flow. The transfer of energy from the rising vapor to the falling liquid causes fractional separation of the more volatile ammonia and carbon dioxide from the less volatile water, such that higher in the column, there is a higher fraction of ammonia and carbon dioxide than at points lower in the column. At steady state operation, the water exiting the bottom of the column may be specified to contain less than 1 ppm ammonia and carbon dioxide. The energy required for this approach is almost entirely thermal, with a small amount of additional electrical power used for fluid pumping to and from the column. All gasses in the vapor stream from the top of the column are condensed at the vacuum level of the column, with non-condensable gases (external air from fitting leaks) removed with a steam thermojet, as is typical of MSF and MED desalination methods. The amount of steam (24 psi for the thermojet) required for this is assumed to be the same as that used for MSF, and is included as a component of the thermal energy requirement.

Picture 5. Schematic diagram of a single vacuum distillation column (picture from McCutcheon [4])

Comparison of Energy Requirements A comparison between FO and several current desalination technologies may be made on an electrical energy used basis. The technologies examined are reverse osmosis (RO), multi-stage flash distillation (MSF), low temperature multi effect distillation (LT-MED), MED using thermal vapor compression (MED-TVC), and FO. Of the several values available in the literature for each of these technologies, those corresponding to the lowest required electrical energy are used here. The concentration of FO dilute draw solution used in this comparison is 1.5 M, representative of the concentration necessary for adequate permeate flux using currently available FO membranes (McGinnis and Elimelech [5]). The values used for comparison of the various processes are detailed in Table 1. Also listed are the percentage reductions in equivalent work realized by the use of the FO process, relative to the other processes examined. These range from 92% for RO to 85% for MSF. Data for MSF, MED-TVC, and MED low temperature were taken from Morin et al. [6] and for RO from Alvontis et al. [7].
Table 1. Comparison of energy requirement of several desalination technologies

Technology MSF MED-TVC MED-low temp. RO-energy recovery FO (low temp, 1.5 M feed)

Electrical Energy (kWh/m3) 2.65 1.60 1.60 3.02 0.24

Percent Energy Savings Using FO Technology 91% 85% 85% 92%

As can be seen from the comparison data, the FO desalination process offers significant improvements in energy efficiency and cost over current desalination technologies. This is in part due to the ability of the FO process to use very low temperature heat, with correspondingly low thermal energy cost, in its solute recovery system. Alternately, the use of higher temperature heat sources results in significantly increased efficiency for FO relative to current technologies. This is due primarily to the fact that in FO, energy is used to vaporize draw solution solutes, rather than feedwater solvent, as is done in MSF and MED. An additional benefit found in the use of FO is in the low electrical energy consumption of the process. Current desalination processes use between 1.63.02 kWh/m3 electrical power. The FO desalination process benefits from high recoveries and the use of largely unpressurized fluid pumping (with some exceptions at higher temperatures for pressurized columns), which results in an electrical power requirement of typically less than 0.24 kWh/m3. Application of Forward Osmosis Desalination The use of FO for seawater purification does not advance yet. The concept of hydration bags was developed for military, recreational, and emergency relief situations when reliable drinking water is scarce or not available. Hydration bags are one of the few commercial applications of FO. Although slower than other water purification devices, FO hydration bags require no power and only foul minimally, even when used with seawater and brackish water. The high selectivity of an FO membrane ensures that in most situations and for most sources of water, the permeating water is free of microorganisms, most macromolecules, and most ions. In the hydration bags, an edible draw solution (e.g., a

sugar or beverage powder) is packed in a sealed bag made of a semi-permeable FO membrane. Upon immersion of the bag in an aqueous solution, water diffuses into the bag due to the osmotic pressure difference and slowly dilutes the initially solid draw solution. At the end of the process the diluted draw solution can be consumed as a sweet drink containing nutrients and minerals. In this regard, hydration bags represent an ultimate treatment process; not a pretreatment process. For small, personal devices, the process can take 34 hours to completely hydrate a 12 oz beverage. The extraction bags can be placed directly in the source water or they can be suspended in another sealed plastic bag that holds the source water, providing better mobility and autonomy to the user. In recent years, the military procured hydration bags for emergency and relief efforts around the world (Cohen [6]). Yet, there is debate among experts whether hydration bags provide water treatment per se because the product is not pure water but a sweet drink that can only be used for specific applications.

4. Conclusion
The use of osmotic pressure to effect the separation of fresh water from saline sources will allow for higher feedwater recoveries, lower brine discharge volumes, lower (and less expensive) energy use and a lower total water cost. Using a vacuum distillation column for solute recovery, it is possible to use very low grade heat as the primary energy source for FO. This creates the potential to drive water desalination with used energy exhausted from power plants or industrial facilities, at near to or zero energy cost. The high recoveries and subsequent low brine discharge volumes make it possible to reduce the negative environmental impact of desalination of all types, but these also open up the possibility of effectively desalting inland saline water sources. With high recovery FO, it may be possible to obtain fresh water economically from brackish groundwater without producing high volume of liquid brine stream. This could be of great benefit to arid regions with such resources. In case of archipelago country like Indonesia, where freshwater is scarce meanwhile seawater is abundant, FO technology would be a good alternative. Low energy requirement leads to affordable price. FO also has potency to be developed for small scale that can be used for low-income household, particularly for those living in coastal area with insufficient freshwater availability. As for now several applications of desalination technologies in Indonesia remain using RO and distillation to obtain fresh water in large scale (for oil industry and tourism activity). Once the development of FO gets advance, it would be a promising technology of freshwater provision that needs to be applied in Indonesia.

References
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