Research published earlier this month in the journal Nature and highlighted in Newsweek explains how substantial amounts of power can be generated when fresh water river mouths flow into bodies of sea water. This natural phenomenon of osmosis involves fresh water coming into contact with sea water through a membrane. The potential of harnessing the process of osmosis is significant: researchers estimate that a 1m2 membrane could produce enough electricity to power 50,000 standard energy-saving light bulbs! To learn more about this breakthrough research, read on.

Osmosis is seen as a promising source of renewable energy. Unlike solar panels or wind turbines that require sufficient amounts of sunlight and wind respectively, energy produced from osmosis can occur at any time in a day. Researchers are exploring ways to harness the process of osmosis, which involves capturing the electrical charge of salt ions that travel through the membrane to balance concentrations in fresh water and sea water.

“We had to first fabricate and then investigate the optimal size of the nanopore…if it’s too big, negative ions can pass through and the resulting voltage would be too low. If it’s too small, not enough ions can pass through and the current would be weak,” said Jiandong Feng, the lead author of the research and a researcher at the Laboratory of Nanoscale Biology of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). EPFL is a research institute and university located in Switzerland that specializes in engineering and physical sciences. Pilot projects such as these have taken place in Europe, Japan, and the U.S. to determine the optimal size of the nanopore.