What Is Electrodialysis Reversal and What Are its New Innovations?

Aug 10th 2018

Key Takeaways

Electrodialysis reversal (EDR) technology and its specific application fits are explained.


Innovations in EDR enable:

  • Treatment of highly scaling flows without expensive chemical treatment,
  • Selective extraction of ions, and
  • Treatment of highly contaminated organic flows.

EDR is not generally a competitor to reverse osmosis, but rather each has its specific fits. In some applications, such as FGD or produced water, EDR can provide a compelling cost advantage.

How does Electrodialysis Reversal Work?

Electrodialysis (ED) technology is the second most widely used membrane desalination technology and has been developed since the 1960s for a wide range of industrial applications. It involves applying a direct current (DC) electric field to flux positive ions across cation exchange membranes (CEM) in one direction, and negative ions through anion exchange membranes (AEM) in the opposite direction. The two types of membranes alternate within a stack (Figure 1).

Photo of a FlexEDR E150 stack with a transparent background
Figure 1. A single complete electrodialysis stack

As the process feedwater (or wastewater) enters the ‘product’ chamber, ions get pulled out of the product water as it travels up the length of the stack, parallel to the membranes. These ions get concentrated up in the concentrate chamber, also flowing parallel to the product chamber, see Figure 2 below. The ‘reversal’ term in EDR comes from recent innovation that allows the polarity of electrodes and hydraulic channels to ‘reverse’, which helps keep the membranes clean.

A technical diagram showing the operating principle of electrodialysis reversal
Figure 2. Illustration of a functioning electrodialysis system

Typical electrodialysis systems are composed of stacks of cation and anion exchange membranes. However, due to recent advancements in membrane manufacturing, it is increasingly possible to selectively pull out monovalent ions using ion exchange membranes that have high divalent ion rejection (such as Saltworks’ IonFlux products with 98% divalent ion rejection). This monovalent electrodialysis reversal (mEDR) can be used for a number of treatment or reuse applications, including the following:


  • Removing chlorides to reduce corrosion in water circulating loops that result in high blowdown. A prime example of where this is particularly useful is in flue gas desulfurization wastewater, where the 90% recovered water can be recycled, while the final 10% residuals can be mixed with combustion ash or fly ash.
  • Removing scale-causing gypsum from cooling tower blowdown to enable higher cooling tower cycling, provided the tower is designed to handle the higher salinity, or if the corrosion-causing chlorides are removed.
  • Selectively removing sodium to reduce the sodium adsorption ratio (SAR) in agricultural or vertical farming wastewater to allow recycling of nutrients or multivalent fertilizer by-products.
Diagram of monovalent electrodialysis reversal (mEDR) using selective membranes and FlexEDR technology
Figure 3. mEDR process flow diagram

Comparing Electrodialysis Reversal and Reverse Osmosis: The Workhorses of Desalination

Reverse osmosis (RO) and EDR are the top two membrane desalination technologies and have their own unique fit for a variety of applications. They should not be seen as competing processes. However, relative economics of either system will depend largely on factors related to water chemistry, process design and site requirements. Below is a quick comparison of EDR and RO technology.

Inorganic Scaling

RO’s main operating principle is the use of high pressure to force water through pico- to nano-scale pores of a membrane and reject salt ions. To mitigate scaling with RO systems, anti-scalants are used. For higher scaling potential waters, chemical pre-treatment will be required to remove scaling compounds.


This is contrasted with EDR, which uses a voltage difference, instead of water pressure, to drive ions through the membranes; there is no pressurized impingement on the membrane surface. This means EDR is much more tolerant of inorganic scaling and organic fouling and requires less pre-treatment. Additionally, the EDR process is configured to further mitigate scaling risk with easy clean-in-place design, and the ability to reverse polarity of electrodes and hydraulic channels to flux ions in the opposite direction. This reversal action allows the concentrate chamber to be cleaned with lower salinity product water, further mitigating scaling risk.

Organic Fouling

Typically, membranes do not fare well in the presence of wastewater with high organics. The membranes are susceptible to damage due to the solvent-like properties of organics. To remove organics, oxidants (such as bleach or chlorine), which can also damage RO membranes, are required, but must be removed prior to the membrane stage. Thus, both RO and EDR systems with conventional membranes are susceptible to membrane damage in the presence of organics. However, Saltworks’ FlexEDR Organix system leverages cross-linked EDR membranes that are highly resistant to organics. Furthermore, the membranes can resist bleach and chlorine dioxide, which can be used to clean the membranes after operating on highly fouling or organic wastewater.

Brine and Treated Water

RO systems concentrate up all contaminants in the water into a single brine stream, with no selectivity. This also means that the treated water produced by an RO system is typically very low in salinity and dissolved ions. The brine concentrations achievable are dependent on the amount of pressure that is being applied. Typical RO systems can concentrate up to 80,000 mg/L (1,200 psi) or 130,000 mg/L (1,800 psi), assuming all scalants are removed. However, concentrating brine any further is challenging because RO membranes can withstand only certain amounts of pressure. This results in relatively larger brine volumes.


Since electrodialysis does not rely on pressure and is more tolerant to scale formation, it can concentrate the brine up to 180,000 mg/L TDS. Due to flexibility in different ion exchange membrane arrangements, the brine from an EDR system can be tuned to selectively concentrate or extract certain ions. This also allows users to tune the salinity of their treated water outlets to any TDS concentration.

The Economics of Desalinating with EDR: The Importance of ΔTDS

The economics of EDR technology depend most strongly on the starting and final concentrations of the feed stream; this is the ΔTDS (change in concentration of total dissolved solids). With increasing ΔTDS, or the more the EDR system has to desalt, the EDR system will require greater membrane area and more stacks (capital cost), as well as more power (operating cost).


EDR systems are sized based on current density and current efficiency. Current density is the amount of current that can be applied per unit area of membrane (typically in A/m2). Current efficiency is a measure of how effective the applied current is in moving ions across the membrane. The higher the current density and current efficiency, the more ions can be moved across the membrane with less membrane area and power. Figure 4 below illustrates the relationship between current density and how much desalination occurs in one pass of a full-scale stack (FlexEDR E200), assuming 80% current efficiency. Two different types of brine are shown: NaCl brine and CaCl2 brine—typically, most wastewater will fall between the two brine lines shown. Depending on the starting TDS of the wastewater feed, a typical EDR product water output of 1,500 mg/L TDS offers the best economics. Treating much lower TDS concentrations will increase the ΔTDS, and subsequently, the cost.

Graph describing the change in total dissolved solids vs. energy required for an electrodialysis reversal process
Figure 4. TDS change compared to energy requirements for a FlexEDR E200 stack

Note that the maximum current density that can be applied is subject to the effects of current limiting density, also known as current limit. Driving EDR at currents higher than this limit will result in the splitting of water molecules at the boundary layers of membranes, which wastes energy to produce H+ and OH, and reduces current efficiency. Our FlexEDR systems can be driven at higher current limits than conventional systems due to our IonFlux membranes that offer low resistance, small boundary layers, and smooth membrane surface areas.


The current limit decreases with decreasing TDS, so the best economics may sometimes be obtained by arranging stacks in series that operate at different currents. An example might be where a high-TDS wastewater would require one stack that operates at 200 A/m2, which must then be sent for final polishing with a second stack at 60 A/m2 to avoid splitting water as the TDS decreases and pushes down the current limit with it.

Comparing the Costs of an RO vs. EDR System

Comparing an RO system against EDR technology requires an in-depth examination of your project needs and water chemistry. In both cases, a simple bench test can show a great deal about the best approach to your water treatment problem.


An important factor to consider when evaluating the cost of RO or EDR systems is efficiency. Due to the pressure applied to RO systems, they are much more likely to have their performance reduced by water chemistry that causes scale formation, fouling or organics that damage membranes. This reduction in performance will not only reduce the efficiency of your treatment system but will also drive up your operational and maintenance costs because labour and parts are required to provide fixes. EDR is much more resistant to these performance-decreasing factors, as mentioned earlier, reducing the operational overhead when operating on challenging wastewater, compared to RO.


In both RO and EDR systems, the energy required to concentrate brine is dependent on the TDS. The more dissolved salts present in your water, the more expensive your water treatment operations become. However, this cost will scale much more rapidly in EDR systems, due to the impact that ΔTDS has on capital and operating costs. For this reason, RO tends to be more cost-effective when significant reductions in TDS are required, and EDR may be more cost-effective when selective ion removal is required, or smaller TDS reductions are necessary.

The Future of EDR Technology

Homogeneous vs. Cross-linked Membranes

Modern membranes are manufactured from a continuous cast polymer, which, unlike RO and NF membranes, cannot delaminate. The next stage in membrane technology is having membranes with extreme chemical durability. Saltworks’ IonFlux membranes are one example of such membranes: their highly cross-linked polymers enable chemical durability as well as ductility and smoothness.

Modular Design

Having the option of scaling up wastewater treatment systems and changing system capacity according to desired needs is beneficial to companies that own treatment systems. Systems such as FlexEDR arrive as complete, packaged skids with the ability for modular implementation, meaning capacity expansions are easy.


At Saltworks, we offer three stack sizes to scale up during project testing: our benchtop E5 stack, a pilot E100 stack, and the E200 stack, which have respective capacities of 5 m3/day, 100 m3/day and 200 m3/day (Figure 5). Our standard skid combines six E200 stacks into a plant, for a capacity of 1200 m3/day, although stacks can be removed or added to adapt to different project needs.

Three electrodialysis stacks ordered from smallest to largest
Figure 5. Three FlexEDR Stacks, from left to right. E5 benchtop stack, E100 pilot stack, full-scale E200 stack.

Tests show that mEDR can achieve over 90% recovery and remove more than 90% of chlorides. The brine reject produced consisted mainly of calcium, magnesium, and sodium chloride, and greater than 150,000 mg/L TDS.

Reduced Need for Pre-Treatment

EDR technology finds itself advantageous over other treatment technologies due to its reduced requirement for pre-treatment. Advances in EDR membrane technology, such as the IonFlux ion exchange membranes used in FlexEDR systems, further reduce the need for pre-treatment, with its resilience to organics and rugged design that are capable of treating demanding oilfield waters. Reducing the need for pre-treatment also provides significant monetary benefits to treatment system owners.

Learning More

Modern EDR may provide certain projects with a real cost advantage. Readers do not need to learn how to size and quote an EDR system. Simply contact us today to get started on your project.  

About Saltworks

Saltworks Technologies is a leader in the development and delivery of solutions for industrial wastewater treatment and lithium refining. By working with customers to understand their unique challenges and focusing on continuous innovation, Saltworks’ solutions provide best-in-class performance and reliability. From its headquarters in Richmond, BC, Canada, Saltworks’ team designs, builds, and operates full-scale plants, and offers comprehensive onsite and offsite testing services with its fleet of mobile pilots.

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