Earlier this year I heard University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill doctoral student Ryan Kingsbury, a member of Orlando Coronell’s lab discuss his research and was introduced to the term “blue energy” for the first time. Ryan studies energy storage and generation from salinity gradients. Salinity gradient energy or “blue energy” refers to the energy released when water with different concentrations of salt mix (this is essentially the reverse of what happens during desalination). For those of you who teach about diffusion, here is an opportunity to show your students how selective diffusion of positive and negative ions across membranes can drive the production of electricity!
Salinity gradient energy is at the cutting edge of research on renewable energy. Using ion-selective membranes and a process known as reverse electrodialysis (RED), natural and industrial waters (e.g. seawater, desalination brine, etc.) can be used to store energy, generate electricity and even treat wastewater! Ryan recently described the physics behind blue energy and RED in a bit more detail in his own blog post.
And now for the pickle part. It turns out one of the industrial wastewaters being investigated by researchers is the leftover salt water from making Mt. Olive pickles! Researchers from NC State University, UNC-CH, East Carolina University and the Coastal Studies Institute are developing a process that uses salinity gradient to release energy from Mt. Olive wastewater. There is a 6 minute video describing this multi-institutional collaboration and a transcript of the video also available. The project PIs (Dr. Coronell from UNC and Dr. Call from NCSU) also participated in a February 2016 radio interview about salinity gradient energy which explains their project more broadly.
In addition to pickles, NC is also known for its estuaries; the mixing of salt and fresh water that occurs in estuaries is an untapped source of blue energy! In fact, I learned from reading Ryan’s blog post that where rivers flow into the sea and fresh and salt water mix, the amount of energy created is equivalent to the river falling into the ocean from the height of the Eiffel tower!
You can also learn more about blue energy in this June 2015 BBC article Blue energy: How mixing water can create electricity.