Uncovering the Efficiency Limits to Obtaining Water: On Earth and Beyond
Inclement challenges of a changing climate and humanity's desire to explore extraterrestrial environments both necessitate efficient methods to obtain freshwater. To accommodate next generation water technology, there is a need for understanding and defining the energy efficiency for unconventional water sources over a broad range of environments. Exergy analysis provides a common description for efficiency that may be used to evaluate technologies and water sources for energy feasibility. This work uses robust thermodynamic theory coupled with atmospheric and planetary data to define water capture efficiency, explore its variation across climate conditions, and identify technological niches and development needs.
We find that desalinating saline liquid brines, even when highly saline, could be the most energetically favorable option for obtaining water outside of Earth. The energy required to access water vapor may be four to ten times higher than accessing ice deposits, however it offers the capacity for decentralized systems. Considering atmospheric water vapor harvesting on Earth, we find that the thermodynamic minimum is anywhere from 0x (RH≥ 100%) to upwards of 250x (RH<10\%) the minimum energy requirement of seawater desalination. Sorbents, modelled as metal organic frameworks (MOFs), have a particular niche in arid and semi-arid regions (20-30%). Membrane-systems are best at low relative humidity and the region of applicability is strongly affected by the vacuum pumping efficiency. Dew harvesting is best at higher humidity and fog harvesting is optimal when super-saturated conditions exist. Component (e.g., pump, chiller, etc.) inefficiencies are the largest barrier in increasing process-level efficiency and strongly impact the regions optimal technology deployment. The analysis elucidates a fundamental basis for comparing water systems energy efficiency for outer space applications and provides the first thermodynamics-based comparison of classes of atmospheric water harvesting technologies on Earth.