by Patrick Cox
May 9, 2017
About a billion people lack the water needed to meet basic health and agricultural needs. Water-borne diseases cause nearly half of hospitalizations globally and kill millions each year. And aquifers around the world are being depleted. The lack of clean water fuels regional conflicts and threatens economic growth from California to the Middle East.
As peak oil fears fade, water is emerging as the next resource crisis. While water supplies have always been huge, the cost of purifying water (including waste and sea water) is too high to help the areas of greatest need.
I’m convinced, though, that a solution has been found. And many experts at the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation agree. The technology does not involve the standard polymeric membranes or even graphene. Rather, it comes from drug development biotechnologies honed by the pharmaceutical industry.
The pharmaceutical sciences approach water in a new way
Agua Via, the company that controls this technology, mimics super-efficient biological membranes found in your body using the same development technologies responsible for the drugs in your medicine cabinet. This biomimetic process could cut the cost of water purification by at least a factor of ten. In the long run, this could lower the price tag of desalinization to 1% of current costs.
Agua Via struggled initially to explain its breakthrough to conventional polymeric membrane chemists who have purified water using a technology that is almost 50-years old. Agua Via’s radically new approach utilizes science far outside the industry’s expertise (which is polymer filters that use more energy when used to remove smaller contaminants).
The chief scientist behind Agua Via’s breakthroughs, Martin Edelstein PhD, is an organic chemist with a long history in the pharmaceutical business. His approach to water purification was informed by an industry that makes molecularly precise materials using the same principles of organic chemistry that our bodies do.
Nanotechnology and water purification
The term “molecularly precise manufacturing” tends to be associated with nanotechnology. Scientists who work at this scale aspire to manipulate individual atoms. These scientists work “top down,” trying to make large structures ever smaller.
Drug makers, however, already do atomically precise manufacturing. In the drug business, a single out-of-place atom in a drug molecule is not just a mistake… it can be lethal. In the cut-throat world of drug companies, they’ve learned to be both precise and cost efficient. Nanotechnologists can only do so at much greater expense.
The building blocks of Agua Via’s technology are 150 atom “pores,” each the equivalent of a sophisticated pharmaceutical. The pores, floating in perfectly still water, are coaxed to self-assemble into precise molecular configurations to create a one atomic layer thick membrane. This is done by manipulating the covalent bonding forces that hold molecules together.
Moreover, it’s possible to design these configurations with attachment points on their sides and tops. Many of them tessellate. This means they self-assemble into stable geometric patterns like those seen in quilting and some M.C. Escher illustrations. The result is a durable, large single-molecule thick structure. It can then be integrated onto strong but porous polymer films, which makes it even stronger.
These molecularly precise films have one critical trait due to their molecular scale. The pores can be made with precise shapes, sizes, charges, and other chemical attributes. This creates membranes that precisely control what passes through them. So far, the company has patented over 20 million holes that occur in tessellating self-assembling nanomembranes.
The list of potential applications is immense. The most obvious, for financial as well as humanitarian reasons, is water purification. Edelstein and cofounder Gayle Pergamit (co-author with Eric Drexler of Unbounding the Future) began studying the water purification industry. They found that the industry’s approach ignored biomimetic advantages to solve problems.
Their vision was a nanomembrane that would let only those desirable molecules that are found in water pass through. This would occur no matter what was in the untreated source. While this may seem a fantastical goal, it’s happening right now in your body… in every membrane of every cell.
The human body provides a key to water filtration
Prior to 2003, it was thought that water in cells diffused through normal forces. But Peter Agre, PhD changed that. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of cellular water channels. He called them aquaporins. Agre described biological structures (channels comprising pores) that rapidly move water but not unwanted impurities. This process is so fast that some scientists have described it as “water teleportation.”
Clearly, this process happens in the body without multiple membranes or high energy expenditures. So the Agua Via team designed a nanomembrane that replicated only the critical part of aquaporins. Though they lacked the resources to scale up their design, small scale tests demonstrated the same sort of purification results found in our cells. Of course, almost no one with a conventional polymer chemistry background believed them.
One man who did not dismiss the idea was former secretary of state George Schultz, who has excelled in government, academia and business. Schultz has long thought that conflict over scarce water resources is a major cause of war and strife. So he took the company’s science to a biochemist friend Paul Berg PhD. Berg is the Nobel laureate who pioneered genetic engineering in 1970 and helped launch the biotech success story Genentech.
Berg was one of the few people with the background and vision to understand the science behind the project. It also helped that when he was younger he worked with the Office of Naval Research on desalinization technologies. He gave his endorsement to Schultz, who continues to be a strong supporter and is now an investor.
The US government endorses this breakthrough
For years, I’ve watched this technology languish. But the right connections have now been made… some through George Shultz and some through US and international leaders in the field of water. Scientists at the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation have studied the process and see its great potential. Here are a few quotes from their published reviews:
“Such a technology can make the polluted feed stocks which are now off limits as impossible or too costly to clean usable.” —US National Science Foundation, SBIR Award Review
“The broader impact of this technology is, of course, astounding.” —US National Science Foundation, SBIR Award Review
“Transformative technology that can revolutionize the water applications across all market segments. This nanotechnology-based membrane which offers a long list of key benefits which would be compelling under normal business circumstances, e.g., small footprint, higher yield, and reduced fouling.” —US Department of Energy, SBIR Phase II Award Review 2016
“By creating a one-atomic-layer-thick nanomembrane, (the) technology moves to the lowest filtration energy possible under the laws of physics, and transforms the relationship. By combining low energy with tremendous specificity in filtration, the membranes achieve the long-sought goal of separation science.” —US Department of Energy, SBIR Phase II Award
“These membranes are a better alternative to much-publicized graphene.” —US National Science Foundation, SBIR Award Review
The technology has been given a phase 2 Department of Energy award to develop massively parallel nanomembrane manufacturing. It also earned a National Science Foundation phase 1 award for prototyping a real-time quality control system on the manufacturing line. The company has already signed contracts with major water suppliers. And I expect there will soon be other grants and awards.
Many water industry professionals have now reviewed Agua Via’s technology. They want to help the company turn the technology into a reality. If things go well, the global water crisis may join peak oil as a former problem in as little as five years. For more information, click on this link.