Global carbon emissions present one of the greatest threats to mankind. The most significant concern associated with carbon emissions is their contribution to climate change. As more carbon dioxide enters the planet’s atmosphere, its heat-trapping effects increase, leading to “the greenhouse effect”.
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Recent research indicates that greenhouse gas emissions are currently at an all-time high, with around 54 gigatons of carbon being added into the atmosphere every year from 2012 to 2021.
If we do not establish strategies that address carbon emissions, the world will see more extreme weather events, increasing sea levels, disrupting ecosystems, and impacting humans, animals, environmental health, and economics.
French energy supplier Sweetch is exploring new ways of producing renewable energy to address carbon emissions associated with our reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels.
The company was established in 2015 in Rennes, France. Today, Sweetch has developed technology that offers a global-scale solution to climate change. By harnessing osmotic power, also known as salinity gradient power or blue energy, Sweetch has created a renewable energy source with the potential to address climate change in numerous ways.
What is Osmotic Power?
Osmotic power is a form of renewable energy that experts have predicted could have the potential to produce half of Europe’s power by 2030. While the renewable energy source is still in its early days in terms of commercial use, osmotic power has been around since the 1970s.
Osmotic power leverages the natural process of osmosis to produce electricity. The concept of osmotic power, developed for electricity generation, passes freshwater and saltwater through a semipermeable membrane that allows water molecules to pass but blocks the movement of ions. Naturally, freshwater will pass through the membrane to the saltwater, moving down the concentration gradient. This causes pressure to build on the side of the membrane containing the saltwater. This pressure can then drive a mechanical device that generates electricity.
The world receives roughly 38% of its energy from renewable energy, which is predicted to continue to rise as we move away from fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives. This figure has to rapidly grow in favor of renewable energy to mitigate the impact of climate change.
Sweetch: The First Company to Offer a Large-Scale Clean Electricity Source From Osmotic Power
Sweetch is the first company to offer a large-scale, permanent, clean electricity source from osmotic power. Osmotic power, widely available across the globe, can produce clean, renewable electricity without interruptions and is not impacted by weather conditions like solar and wind.
Sweetch estimates that almost 30,000 THh of osmotic energy is produced annually worldwide from various deltas and estuaries. By harnessing osmotic power, the world could exceed expectations of obtaining 50% of global electricity from renewables by 2050, reaching 65% instead.
To do this, Sweetch has developed its INOD® technology. While generating osmotic power only requires the essential components of salt and power, researchers have struggled to harvest this energy due to the need to develop a suitable membrane technology.
INOD® utilizes next-generation nano-scale membranes explicitly designed to harvest osmotic energy. The membranes are coupled with proprietary electrode systems, producing high ionic selectivity and transport technology.
Sweetch has considered the sustainability of the technology, choosing to develop the solution using environmentally friendly bio-sourced materials.
Scaling Up Osmotic Power
The new technology from Sweetch overcomes the previous limitation that prevented osmotic power from being scaled up: establishing a membrane suitable for the task.
Several other companies operating in the space have made significant steps forward in the research and design of osmotic power platforms, including Norwegian state-owned Statkraft, who developed ‘Salto’, the world’s first osmotic power prototype plant, REDstack, a Dutch company that has been developing osmotic power via “reverse electrodialysis”, and Osmoblue, a Swiss company that has run osmotic power projects in various locations.
Sweetch is the first to have developed a system suitable for offering a large-scale, permanent, clean electricity source to help boost the use of renewable energy worldwide.
Benefits and Challenges of Osmotic Power
Besides being renewable, osmotic power has many benefits that will help it become an established clean energy solution.
Given the abundant source materials needed, it has a significant market potential and is not intermittent like solar and wind power.
It can also co-locate with other systems, such as desalination and water treatment plants, and can keep overheads down through cost sharing.
The system faces some challenges that must be fully addressed before osmotic power can reach its full potential.
The first challenge is using freshwater and saltwater as energy sources. While the planet has abundant sources beneficial to osmotic power, the high volumes of these sources required by large-scale osmotic power plantations introduce a crucial concern for osmotic power. Extracting fresh and saltwater in large volumes may disturb aquatic ecosystems, habitats, and water resources. Companies establishing large-scale osmotic energy operations need to consider the potential impact of power systems on the environment before setting up.
Scaling up osmotic power systems to produce enough power to meet commercial demand also requires infrastructure and the availability of sites. Companies face this challenge, particularly for inaugural sites with no previous projects to base their plans on.
Finally, potential pre-treatment processes may be required to purify the water before it is used. These energy-intensive processes may begin to outweigh the energy payoff of the process and must, therefore, be carefully balanced. Any process requiring energy, such as pre-treatment processes, must be powered by renewable energy to ensure the complete sustainability of the project.
The Future of Osmotic Power
The osmotic energy platform developed by Sweetch will likely be fundamental in helping the world move towards renewable energy sources to address climate change.
By 2050, the world will have doubled its electricity demand, and harnessing the untapped source of osmotic energy will help us meet this increasing demand.
References and Further Reading
Expanding the frontiers of renewable energy with osmotic power [online]. Sweetch Energy. Available at: https://www.sweetch.energy/ (Accessed August 2023)
Greenhouse gas emissions at ‘an all-time high’ [online]. University of Leeds. Available at: https://climate.leeds.ac.uk/news/greenhouse-gas-emissions-at-an-all-time-high/ (Accessed August 2023)
Gwladys Fouché. (2009). Power of osmosis used to deliver eco-friendly energy [online]. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/nov/25/osmosis-plant-emission-free-energy (Accessed August 2023)
Renewables [online]. IEA. Available at: https://www.iea.org/reports/global-energy-review-2021/renewables (Accessed August 2023)