Harnessing the Ocean’s Gradient with Nanofluidic Energy Conversion

river water meets the sea

(Credit: Unsplash.com)

by | Mar 8, 2024

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In a stride toward green energy, researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have unveiled an innovative nanofluidic device. This technology promises to tap into the largely unexploited energy resource found at the juncture of the world’s rivers and oceans — the salinity gradient.

Published in the journal Nano Energy, the team’s findings showcase a device that adeptly converts the ionic flow, resulting from the mixing of seawater and freshwater, into electric power.

Jean-Pierre Leburton, the project’s lead and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university, highlighted the device’s potential. Initially, an academic pursuit, the question — whether a nanoscale solid-state device could harness energy from ionic flow — has led to a design that not only demonstrates feasibility but also exceeds our initial projections in versatility and energy application potential.

Unveiling the Mechanism

At the heart of this technology lies the utilization of a phenomenon known as “coulomb drag.” This process involves the interaction between the ions, which are electrically charged particles created by dissolved salt, and the device’s own electric charges. As these ions traverse a narrow channel within the device, they induce the movement of device charges from one end to the other, generating voltage and electric current.

What sets this design apart is its efficiency with both positively and negatively charged ions and its independence from the channel configuration or material — so long as the channel maintains a narrow diameter. This ensures a close proximity between the ions and the device charges, optimizing energy conversion.

Mingye Xiong, a graduate student in Leburton’s group and the lead author of the study, revealed two surprising aspects of their simulation. Xiong explained that not only does the device work with both attractive and repulsive electric forces, but it also benefits from an amplification effect. The considerable momentum transferred from the massive ions to the device charges greatly enhances the current.

Prospects and Applications

As the team moves forward with patenting their discovery, they are also exploring how arrays of these nanodevices could be scaled up for practical energy generation. Leburton posited that the power density of such an array could potentially rival or surpass that of existing solar cells, emphasizing the technology’s promise not only in power generation but also in fields like biomedical sensing and nanofluidics.

This research not only opens new avenues for sustainable energy harvesting but also underscores the untapped potential of natural resources.

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