Low-Resistance Monovalent-Selective Cation Exchange Membranes for Energy-Efficient Ion Separations
The desalination of brackish water provides water to tens of millions of people around the world, but current technologies deplete much needed nutrients from the water, which is detrimental to both public health and agriculture. A selective method for brackish water desalination, which retains the needed nutrients, is electrodialysis (ED) using monovalent-selective cation exchange membranes (MVS-CEMs). However, due to the trade-off between membrane selectivity and resistance, most MVS-CEMs demonstrate either high transport resistance or low selectivity, which increase energy consumption and hinder the use of such membranes for brackish water desalination by ED. Here, we used molecular layer deposition (MLD) to uniformly coat CEMs with ultrathin layers of alucone. The positive surface charge of the alucone instills monovalent selectivity in the CEM. Using MLD enabled us to precisely control and minimize the selective layer thickness, while the flexibility and nanoporosity of the alucone prevent cracking and delamination. Under conditions simulating brackish water desalination, this compound provides monovalent selectivity with negligible added resistance—the smallest reported resistance for a monovalent-selective layer, to date—thereby alleviating the selectivity–resistance trade-off. Addressing the water–energy nexus, we show that using these membranes in ED will cut at least half of the energy required for selective brackish water desalination with current MVS-CEMs.