Portable unit to aid desalination energy project

Dr Fernanda Helfer, from Griffith's School of Engineering
Dr Fernanda Helfer, from Griffith's School of Engineering

Griffith University’s Dr Fernanda Helfer is capitalising on a major national award to further her research into the viability of a renewable energy derived from the desalination process.

Dr Helfer, from the School of Engineering, is the recipient of a $47,000 AMP Foundation Tomorrow Maker Award and has joined Queensland University of Technology’s Professor Graeme Millar to lead a project studying the potential of Pressure-Retarded Osmosis (PRO) in Australia.

PRO technology comprises a semi-permeable membrane that separates water flows with different salt contents.Through osmosis, the less concentration solution flows to the high concentration side to equalise the osmotic pressure on both sides.

This creates a solution that, once depressurised via a turbine, produces a renewable electrical energy.

PRO-assisted desalination is considered a promising alternative for the desalination industry worldwide, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and allowing minimisation of environmental impacts caused by the discharge of concentrated brine into the sea.

Dr Helfer with her AMP Foundation Tomorrow Maker Award
Dr Helfer with her AMP Foundation Tomorrow Maker Award

Dr Helfer and Professor Millar plan to build a portable laboratory unit integrating PRO with Reverse Osmosis (RO) desalination. It will be available for ongoing experiments and analysis.

“We are currently working on a joint research paper featuring several scenarios around the application of PRO-generated power in Australia,” says Dr Helfer.

“We are meeting in March to discuss the design and suppliers of components for the portable PRO unit. Hopefully, it will be built and operational by later this year.”

An important aspect of the project will be a study into the efficacy of using wastewater effluent and brine from desalination plants as a source of energy.

While scientists agree that technical and economic improvements are required to ensure the commercial viability and credibility of PRO membrane technology, Dr Helfer believes this new research will confirm its potential, particularly regarding environmental benefits.

“There is potential for this technology to be used in the mining industry, as it produces a lot of high salinity water which makes it problematic for beneficial use,” she says.

“The PRO process can be used to dilute this water and minimise the impact on the environment when it is disposed.

“PRO is also a potential source of energy for remote and island communities where freshwater is at a premium.”

Last year Dr Helfer co-authored a paper that identified Australia as ideal for the construction of PRO plants linked to desalination plants.

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