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High-flux water desalination with interfacial salt sieving effect in nanoporous carbon composite membranes

Abstract

Freshwater flux and energy consumption are two important benchmarks for the membrane desalination process. Here, we show that nanoporous carbon composite membranes, which comprise a layer of porous carbon fibre structures grown on a porous ceramic substrate, can exhibit 100% desalination and a freshwater flux that is 3–20 times higher than existing polymeric membranes. Thermal accounting experiments demonstrated that the carbon composite membrane saved over 80% of the latent heat consumption. Theoretical calculations combined with molecular dynamics simulations revealed the unique microscopic process occurring in the membrane. When the salt solution is stopped at the openings to the nanoscale porous channels and forms a meniscus, the vapour can rapidly transport across the nanoscale gap to condense on the permeate side. This process is driven by the chemical potential gradient and aided by the unique smoothness of the carbon surface. The high thermal conductivity of the carbon composite membrane ensures that most of the latent heat is recovered.

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Acknowledgements

Commercial PTFE membranes and FO membranes were provided by N. Ghaffour and T. Zhang from the KAUST Water Desalination and Reuse Center. Z.L. acknowledges support from KAUST (grant URF/1/1723) and KACST (grant RGC/3/1614). P.S. acknowledges support from KAUST (Special Partnerships Award number UK-C0016 and grant SA-C0040), HKUST (grant SRFI 11/SC02) and the William Mong Institute of Nanoscience and Technology (grant G5537-E).

Author information

Z.L. and W.C. conceived the initial ideas and experimental design. S.C., T.L. and P.S. contributed to the desalination mechanism and the relevant simulations and data analyses. W.C., Q.Z., Z.F. and H.Y. carried out the experiments, and T.L. and S.C. carried out the MD simulations. K.-W.H. contributed to data analyses, and X.Z. contributed to characterization and data analyses. Z.L., W.C. and P.S. wrote the first draft, and Z.L., W.C., P.S., S.C., T.L. and X.Z. participated in the revisions.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Zhiping Lai or Ping Sheng.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Text, Supplementary Figures 1–15 and Supplementary Tables 1–9.

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Further reading

Fig. 1: Structure of the membrane.
Fig. 2: Freshwater transport through the C-D35-2 membrane.
Fig. 3: Energy accounting experiment.
Fig. 4: Desalination mechanism.
Fig. 5: Predicted heat and mass transport by theoretical modelling and MD simulations in the carbon composite membrane.