Water has always been crucial to combustion and hydroelectric processes, but it could become the source of power in membrane-based systems that capture energy from natural and waste waters. Two processes are emerging as sustainable methods for capturing energy from sea water: pressure-retarded osmosis and reverse electrodialysis. These processes can also capture energy from waste heat by generating artificial salinity gradients using synthetic solutions, such as thermolytic salts. A further source of energy comes from organic matter in waste waters, which can be harnessed using microbial fuel-cell technology, allowing both wastewater treatment and power production. © 2012 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.