Several technologies, including pressure-retarded osmosis (PRO), reverse electrodialysis (RED), and capacitive mixing (CapMix), are being developed to recover energy from salinity gradients. Here, we present a new approach to capture salinity gradient energy based on the expansion and contraction properties of poly(acrylic acid) hydrogels. These materials swell in fresh water and shrink in salt water, and thus the expansion can be used to capture energy through mechanical processes. In tests with 0.36 g of hydrogel particles 300 to 600 μm in diameter, 124 mJ of energy was recovered in 1 h (salinity ratio of 100, external load of 210 g, water flow rate of 1 mL/min). Although these energy recovery rates were relatively lower than those typically obtained using PRO, RED, or CapMix, the costs of hydrogels are much lower than those of membranes used in PRO and RED. In addition, fouling might be more easily controlled as the particles can be easily removed from the reactor for cleaning. Further development of the technology and testing of a wider range of conditions should lead to improved energy recoveries and performance.
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