Pickles could be future of energy in North Carolina

Pickles may be a future source of energy for the state of North Carolina.

Researchers from universities across the state are creating technologies to extract salinity gradients, such as pickle juice, to form energy.

Salient gradients occur when two types of water have different levels of salt concentration, UNC researcher Orlando Coronell said.

This project is a collaboration across multiple universities: Coronell and Lindsay Dubbs from UNC, Doug Call and Joseph DeCarolis from North Carolina State University and Andy Keeler from East Carolina University.

“This is a UNC Research Opportunities Initiatives project — research that may be high risk but it needs to be game changing for the state of North Carolina," Coronell said. 

Coronell said electricity can be stored from the two water currents using reverse electrodialysis.

“The pickle, in this case, serves as the salty water stream,” Coronell said. “You need one high in salt and one low in salt. The way the pickle comes into play is because the pickle brine is very salty.”

The research team was contacted by Mt. Olive Pickles, which began the partnership. 

“They were looking for unique solutions to handle some of the brine waste they produce,” Call said. “To make pickles you need a lot of salt, and a lot of other things like vinegar. Because that’s their main production facility, they make a lot of salt water.”

When the team went to test the brine, they found that it produces a fair amount of power.

“Of all the different water pairs, it did the best,” Call said.

Finding this solution opens the door for future partnership, Call said. There are still steps to be taken to figure out what the technology can do.

“The first part is determining how the resources, in this case, the salinity gradients in North Carolina, how they do with the technology, how well we can produce electricity, how much electricity we can make, and other functions,” Call said. “Then we have to figure out what the limitations of the current state of the technology.”

North Carolina is the perfect place to test this technology, Coronell said.

“You need two streams always to make this technology worthwhile, and North Carolina is geographically well positioned to take advantage of this technology,” Coronell said. “We have the sea...we have freshwater streams in the forms of lakes and rivers.”

Aside from the work Coronell and Call have been doing, the other professors have their own areas of expertise. Dubbs said she is focused on the environmental assessment and determining what potential environmental impacts of the technology are.

“My part was kind of the more local effects,” Dubbs said. “These facilities would be located on the coast. We were interested in how that would affect coastal water quality and coastal ecosystems.”

Call and Coronell brought Dubbs into the project because of her extensive background in renewable energy technology and coastal environments.

“We’ve found that basically the reverse electrodialysis would not have very many detrimental impacts on local environmental quality in coastal regions,” Dubbs said.

As far as the impact this technology can have on energy in the state, there is still much work to be done before a conclusion can be made.

“This is technology that is in the research stage,” Coronell said. “It’s still going to take a lot of research.”

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