Scientists develop new device to generate power with saltwater

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Researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have proposed a novel nanofluidic device design that can convert the ionic flow from the salinity difference between seawater and freshwater into usable electric power.

This untapped energy source found at the world’s coastlines holds significant potential, and if successfully harnessed, it could revolutionize energy generation and application.

Led by Jean-Pierre Leburton, a professor of electrical & computer engineering, the research team designed a nanoscale semiconductor device aimed at extracting energy from natural ionic flows occurring at seawater-freshwater boundaries.

It utilizes “Coulomb drag,” a phenomenon where flowing ions influence electric charges within the device, inducing voltage and electric current when ions traverse through a narrow channel in the device.

Although conceptual, the design promises versatility and significant potential in energy applications.

Working Mechanism

The energy generation process starts when two water bodies of varying salinity meet, causing salt molecules to naturally flow from higher to lower concentration areas, creating energy-rich flows.

The designed nanodevice captures the energy from these flows, which are comprised of electrically charged ions formed from dissolved salt.

Notably, the simulations revealed that the device operates effectively regardless of whether the electric forces are attractive or repulsive, with both positive and negative ions contributing to drag.

The study unveiled two unexpected findings: an amplification effect, where the considerably massive moving ions compared to the device charges amplified the underlying current, imparting substantial amounts of momentum to the charges.

Additionally, the efficacy of these effects remained unaffected by the specific configuration of the channel or the materials chosen, as long as the channel diameter was narrow enough to ensure the closeness between ions and charges.

Practical Implications and Future Work

The research team is in the midst of patenting their innovation, exploring the scalability of device arrays for practical power generation.

They speculate that the power density achievable through an array of these devices might rival or even surpass that of solar cells.

Beyond energy harvest, the potential applications of this nanodevice extend to fields like biomedical sensing and nanofluidics.


The groundbreaking nanofluidic device conceptualized by the team at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has opened avenues for harnessing energy from the salinity gradients found where seawater and freshwater interact.

Although still in conceptual stages, the innovative design, which exploits the “Coulomb drag” phenomenon, has demonstrated remarkable potential, surprising even its creators with its capabilities and versatility.

The pursuit of realizing this concept and further exploration of its scalability and practical implementation could hold the key to a myriad of applications in energy generation and other fields, possibly shaping the future landscape of renewable energy solutions.