How Does Reverse Osmosis Work?
Diffusion is the movement of molecules from a region of higher concentration to a region of lower concentration. Osmosis is a special case of diffusion in which the molecules are water and the concentration gradient occurs across a semipermeable membrane. The semipermeable membrane allows the passage of water, but not ions (e.g., Na+, Ca2+, Cl-) or larger molecules (e.g., glucose, urea, bacteria). Diffusion and osmosis are thermodynamically favorable and will continue until equilibrium is reached. Osmosis can be slowed, stopped, or even reversed if sufficient pressure is applied to the membrane from the ‘concentrated’ side of the membrane.
Reverse osmosis occurs when the water is moved across the membrane against the concentration gradient, from lower concentration to higher concentration. To illustrate, imagine a semipermeable membrane with fresh water on one side and a concentrated aqueous solution on the other side. If normal osmosis takes place, the fresh water will cross the membrane to dilute the concentrated solution. In reverse osmosis, pressure is exerted on the side with the concentrated solution to force the water molecules across the membrane to the fresh water side.
Membrane Separation Technologies
If pressure greater than the osmotic pressure is applied to the high concentration the direction of water flow through the membrane can be reversed. This is called reverse osmosis (abbreviated RO). Note that this reversed flow produces pure water from the salt solution, since the membrane is not permeable to salt.