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 semi-permeable membrane. The semi-permeable 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 semi-permeable 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.
Semi-permeable refers to a membrane that selectively allows certain species to pass through it while retaining others. In actuality, many species will pass through the membrane, but at significantly different rates. In RO, the solvent (water) passes through the membrane at a much faster rate than the dissolved solids (salts). The net effect is that a solute-solvent separation occurs, with pure water being the product. (In some cases, dewatering is desired to concentrate the salts).
Tags: diffusion , osmosis , Reverse Osmosis , water