The Coronell Research Group studies water purification and energy production and storage processes, with applications in municipal, industrial, and household systems.  Research in the Coronell Lab currently focuses on: (i) membranes for water purification, (ii) salinity gradient energy, and (iii) point-of-use water treatment.  A brief description of our research focus areas, with specific examples of topics of interest in each area, is provided below.  For additional specific outputs of our group, please visit the Publications and Presentations sections.

Membranes for Water Purification

The increasing scarcity of fresh drinking water sources around the world and the increasingly stringent regulations for drinking water production have made membrane technologies attractive options for water purification as they are able to remove a broad range of contaminants in one step.  The capacity of low-pressure membranes to remove suspended solids and pathogens, and the capacity of high-pressure membranes to remove salts and small organics, allows for the use of membrane technology to treat conventional water sources (i.e., river, lake, and well water) as well as unconventional water sources (e.g., seawater, reclaimed effluent).  In particular, high-pressure membranes have become key technologies in seawater desalination and water reuse systems, both of which have become a necessity, rather than just an attractive option, in various parts of the world.

The scope of our research on membrane science and technology includes (i) membrane development, (ii) membrane characterization, (iii) membrane fouling, and (iv) process testing/development.  Through our basic research we advance the understanding of the mechanisms of transport of water and contaminants through osmotic membranes (e.g., reverse osmosis, nanofiltration, forward osmosis), and fouling in low-pressure and high-pressure membranes.  Through our applied research, we develop improved membranes, provide recommendations on fouling testing and control, and evaluate practical applications of membrane technology.  Our group has pioneered experimental methods for the quantitative characterization of physico-chemical properties of the ultrathin selective barriers of thin-film composite and nanocomposite membranes and water-membrane and contaminant-membrane interactions. We continue to develop characterization methods and use these methods to study practical problems such as membrane aging and fouling, as well as basic problems such as the relationship between membrane physico-chemical properties and performance. We also use the characterization methods to facilitate the development of improved membranes.

Some specific membrane topics in which our group works are:

Salinity Gradient Energy

When waters with different salt concentrations (such as sea and river water) mix together, a significant amount of energy is released. This process can be understood as the reverse of desalination, which consumes energy. Enabled by recent advances in membrane materials and separation technologies, salinity gradient energy processes such as reverse electrodialysis (RED) and pressure retarded osmosis (PRO) can capture this energy and convert it into a usable form. Such “blue energy” technologies could someday provide a reliable, consistent source of zero-emission renewable energy, in addition to serving a range of other applications including energy recovery from industrial processes and energy storage.

We study potential applications of RED using natural and industrial waters (e.g. seawater, desalination brine, etc.) and investigate the impact of specific inorganic and organic constituents on membrane properties, membrane fouling, and overall process performance. Some specific salinity gradient energy topics in which our group works are:

  • Evaluation of reverse electrodialysis for sustainable power generation using natural waters (ROI Award)
  • Demonstration of salinity-gradient based energy storage (JMS 2015, 495, 502-516)
  • Characterization of ion exchange membrane performance and fouling mechanisms in natural and industrial waters
  • Development of highly-conductive ion exchange materials

Point-of-Use Water Treatment

A significant fraction of the population in impoverished areas of developing countries drink untreated drinking water or treat it with point-of-use (POU) systems.  Also, while customers of public water treatment systems in developed countries are provided water that meets minimum quality standards, owners of private wells must independently ensure safe water quality.  This is usually accomplished with a combination of POU technologies that may include advanced systems, such as reverse osmosis, which are not economical.  Thus, there is a need to develop simple, affordable treatment technologies able to remove contaminants of interest in various types of drinking water sources.

Our work on POU water treatment currently focuses on the study of solid media for the removal of pathogens and heavy metals from aqueous solution.  Our POU research includes materials testing and technology development, as well as characterization of reaction kinetics and contaminant removal mechanisms to facilitate the optimization of operational parameters.  Experiments are performed with artificial and natural waters over a wide range of water quality parameters to study the effects on system performance of various phenomena such as complexation, precipitation, and contaminant speciation.

Specific POU topics in which our group works are:

  • Removal of copper and lead from aqueous solution using granular metallic media
  • Removal of bacteria and viruses from aqueous solution using granular metallic media