Category Archives: water

Killing bacteria on contact with dragonfly-inspired nanocoating

Scientists in Singapore were inspired by dragonflies and cicadas according to a March 28, 2018 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Studies have shown that the wings of dragonflies and cicadas prevent bacterial growth due to their natural structure. The surfaces of their wings are covered in nanopillars making them look like a bed of nails. When bacteria come into contact with these surfaces, their cell membranes get ripped apart immediately and they are killed. This inspired researchers from the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) of A*STAR to invent an anti-bacterial nano coating for disinfecting frequently touched surfaces such as door handles, tables and lift buttons.

This technology will prove particularly useful in creating bacteria-free surfaces in places like hospitals and clinics, where sterilization is important to help control the spread of infections. Their new research was recently published in the journal Small (“ZnO Nanopillar Coated Surfaces with Substrate-Dependent Superbactericidal Property”)

Image 1: Zinc oxide nanopillars that looked like a bed of nails can kill a broad range of germs when used as a coating on frequently-touched surfaces. Courtesy: A*STAR

A March 28, 2018 Agency for Science Technology and Research (A*STAR) press release, which originated the news item, describes the work further,

80% of common infections are spread by hands, according to the B.C. [province of Canada] Centre for Disease Control1. Disinfecting commonly touched surfaces helps to reduce the spread of harmful germs by our hands, but would require manual and repeated disinfection because germs grow rapidly. Current disinfectants may also contain chemicals like triclosan which are not recognized as safe and effective 2, and may lead to bacterial resistance and environmental contamination if used extensively.

“There is an urgent need for a better way to disinfect surfaces without causing bacterial resistance or harm to the environment. This will help us to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases from contact with surfaces,” said IBN Executive Director Professor Jackie Y. Ying.

To tackle this problem, a team of researchers led by IBN Group Leader Dr Yugen Zhang created a novel nano coating that can spontaneously kill bacteria upon contact. Inspired by studies on dragonflies and cicadas, the IBN scientists grew nanopilllars of zinc oxide, a compound known for its anti-bacterial and non-toxic properties. The zinc oxide nanopillars can kill a broad range of germs like E. coli and S. aureus that are commonly transmitted from surface contact.

Tests on ceramic, glass, titanium and zinc surfaces showed that the coating effectively killed up to 99.9% of germs found on the surfaces. As the bacteria are killed mechanically rather than chemically, the use of the nano coating would not contribute to environmental pollution. Also, the bacteria will not be able to develop resistance as they are completely destroyed when their cell walls are pierced by the nanopillars upon contact.

Further studies revealed that the nano coating demonstrated the best bacteria killing power when it is applied on zinc surfaces, compared with other surfaces. This is because the zinc oxide nanopillars catalyzed the release of superoxides (or reactive oxygen species), which could even kill nearby free floating bacteria that were not in direct contact with the surface. This super bacteria killing power from the combination of nanopillars and zinc broadens the scope of applications of the coating beyond hard surfaces.

Subsequently, the researchers studied the effect of placing a piece of zinc that had been coated with zinc oxide nanopillars into water containing E. coli. All the bacteria were killed, suggesting that this material could potentially be used for water purification.

Dr Zhang said, “Our nano coating is designed to disinfect surfaces in a novel yet practical way. This study demonstrated that our coating can effectively kill germs on different types of surfaces, and also in water. We were also able to achieve super bacteria killing power when the coating was used on zinc surfaces because of its dual mechanism of action. We hope to use this technology to create bacteria-free surfaces in a safe, inexpensive and effective manner, especially in places where germs tend to accumulate.”

IBN has recently received a grant from the National Research Foundation, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore, under its Competitive Research Programme to further develop this coating technology in collaboration with Tan Tock Seng Hospital for commercial application over the next 5 years.

1 B.C. Centre for Disease Control

2 U.S. Food & Drug Administration

(I wasn’t expecting to see a reference to my home province [BC Centre for Disease Control].) Back to the usual, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

ZnO Nanopillar Coated Surfaces with Substrate‐Dependent Superbactericidal Property by Guangshun Yi, Yuan Yuan, Xiukai Li, Yugen Zhang. Small First published: 22 February 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

One final comment, this research reminds me of research into simulating shark skin because that too has bacteria-killing nanostructures. My latest about the sharkskin research is a Sept, 18, 2014 posting.

3D printed all liquid electronics

Even after watching the video, I still don’t quite believe it. A March 28, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily announces the work,

Scientists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab [or LBNL]) have developed a way to print 3-D structures composed entirely of liquids. Using a modified 3-D printer, they injected threads of water into silicone oil — sculpting tubes made of one liquid within another liquid.

They envision their all-liquid material could be used to construct liquid electronics that power flexible, stretchable devices. The scientists also foresee chemically tuning the tubes and flowing molecules through them, leading to new ways to separate molecules or precisely deliver nanoscale building blocks to under-construction compounds.

A March 28, 2018 Berkeley Lab March 26, 2018 news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describe the work in more detail,

The researchers have printed threads of water between 10 microns and 1 millimeter in diameter, and in a variety of spiraling and branching shapes up to several meters in length. What’s more, the material can conform to its surroundings and repeatedly change shape.

“It’s a new class of material that can reconfigure itself, and it has the potential to be customized into liquid reaction vessels for many uses, from chemical synthesis to ion transport to catalysis,” said Tom Russell, a visiting faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division. He developed the material with Joe Forth, a postdoctoral researcher in the Materials Sciences Division, as well as other scientists from Berkeley Lab and several other institutions. They report their research March 24 [2018] in the journal Advanced Materials.

The material owes its origins to two advances: learning how to create liquid tubes inside another liquid, and then automating the process.

For the first step, the scientists developed a way to sheathe tubes of water in a special nanoparticle-derived surfactant that locks the water in place. The surfactant, essentially soap, prevents the tubes from breaking up into droplets. Their surfactant is so good at its job, the scientists call it a nanoparticle supersoap.

The supersoap was achieved by dispersing gold nanoparticles into water and polymer ligands into oil. The gold nanoparticles and polymer ligands want to attach to each other, but they also want to remain in their respective water and oil mediums. The ligands were developed with help from Brett Helms at the Molecular Foundry, a DOE Office of Science User Facility located at Berkeley Lab.

In practice, soon after the water is injected into the oil, dozens of ligands in the oil attach to individual nanoparticles in the water, forming a nanoparticle supersoap. These supersoaps jam together and vitrify, like glass, which stabilizes the interface between oil and water and locks the liquid structures in position.

This stability means we can stretch water into a tube, and it remains a tube. Or we can shape water into an ellipsoid, and it remains an ellipsoid,” said Russell. “We’ve used these nanoparticle supersoaps to print tubes of water that last for several months.”

Next came automation. Forth modified an off-the-shelf 3-D printer by removing the components designed to print plastic and replacing them with a syringe pump and needle that extrudes liquid. He then programmed the printer to insert the needle into the oil substrate and inject water in a predetermined pattern.

“We can squeeze liquid from a needle, and place threads of water anywhere we want in three dimensions,” said Forth. “We can also ping the material with an external force, which momentarily breaks the supersoap’s stability and changes the shape of the water threads. The structures are endlessly reconfigurable.”

This image illustrates how the water is printed,

These schematics show the printing of water in oil using a nanoparticle supersoap. Gold nanoparticles in the water combine with polymer ligands in the oil to form an elastic film (nanoparticle supersoap) at the interface, locking the structure in place. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Reconfigurable Printed Liquids by Joe Forth, Xubo Liu, Jaffar Hasnain, Anju Toor, Karol Miszta, Shaowei Shi, Phillip L. Geissler, Todd Emrick, Brett A. Helms, Thomas P. Russell. Advanced Materials First published: 24 March 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Better hair dyes with graphene and a cautionary note

Beauty products aren’t usually the first applications that come to mind when discussing graphene or any other research and development (R&D) as I learned when teaching a course a few years ago. But research and development  in that field are imperative as every company is scrambling for a short-lived competitive advantage for a truly new products or a perceived competitive advantage in a field where a lot of products are pretty much the same.

This March 15, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily describes graphene as a potential hair dye,

Graphene, a naturally black material, could provide a new strategy for dyeing hair in difficult-to-create dark shades. And because it’s a conductive material, hair dyed with graphene might also be less prone to staticky flyaways. Now, researchers have put it to the test. In an article published March 15 [2018] in the journal Chem, they used sheets of graphene to make a dye that adheres to the surface of hair, forming a coating that is resistant to at least 30 washes without the need for chemicals that open up and damage the hair cuticle.

Courtesy: Northwestern University

A March 15, 2018 Cell Press news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, fills in more the of the story,

Most permanent hair dyes used today are harmful to hair. “Your hair is covered in these cuticle scales like the scales of a fish, and people have to use ammonia or organic amines to lift the scales and allow dye molecules to get inside a lot quicker,” says senior author Jiaxing Huang, a materials scientist at Northwestern University. But lifting the cuticle makes the strands of the hair more brittle, and the damage is only exacerbated by the hydrogen peroxide that is used to trigger the reaction that synthesizes the dye once the pigment molecules are inside the hair.

These problems could theoretically be solved by a dye that coats rather than penetrates the hair. “However, the obvious problem of coating-based dyes is that they tend to wash out very easily,” says Huang. But when he and his team coated samples of human hair with a solution of graphene sheets, they were able to turn platinum blond hair black and keep it that way for at least 30 washes–the number necessary for a hair dye to be considered “permanent.”

This effectiveness has to do with the structure of graphene: it’s made of up thin, flexible sheets that can adapt to uneven surfaces. “Imagine a piece of paper. A business card is very rigid and doesn’t flex by itself. But if you take a much bigger sheet of newspaper–if you still can find one nowadays–it can bend easily. This makes graphene sheets a good coating material,” he says. And once the coating is formed, the graphene sheets are particularly good at keeping out water during washes, which keeps the water from eroding both the graphene and the polymer binder that the team also added to the dye solution to help with adhesion.

The graphene dye has additional advantages. Each coated hair is like a little wire in that it is able to conduct heat and electricity. This means that it’s easy for graphene-dyed hair to dissipate static electricity, eliminating the problem of flyaways on dry winter days. The graphene flakes are large enough that they won’t absorb through the skin like other dye molecules. And although graphene is typically black, its precursor, graphene oxide, is light brown. But the color of graphene oxide can be gradually darkened with heat or chemical reactions, meaning that this dye could be used for a variety of shades or even for an ombre effect.

What Huang thinks is particularly striking about this application of graphene is that it takes advantage of graphene’s most obvious property. “In many potential graphene applications, the black color of graphene is somewhat undesirable and something of a sore point,” he says. Here, though, it’s applied to a field where creating dark colors has historically been a problem.

The graphene used for hair dye also doesn’t need to be of the same high quality as it does for other applications. “For hair dye, the most important property is graphene being black. You can have graphene that is too lousy for higher-end electronic applications, but it’s perfectly okay for this. So I think this application can leverage the current graphene product as is, and that’s why I think that this could happen a lot sooner than many of the other proposed applications,” he says.

Making it happen is his next goal. He hopes to get funding to continue the research and make these dyes a reality for the people whose lives they would improve. “This is an idea that was inspired by curiosity. It was very fun to do, but it didn’t sound very big and noble when we started working on it,” he says. “But after we deep-dived into studying hair dyes, we realized that, wow, this is actually not at all a small problem. And it’s one that graphene could really help to solve.”

Northwestern University’s Amanda Morris also wrote a March 15, 2018 news release (it’s repetitive but there are some interesting new details; Note: Links have been removed),

It’s an issue that has plagued the beauty industry for more than a century: Dying hair too often can irreparably damage your silky strands.

Now a Northwestern University team has used materials science to solve this age-old problem. The team has leveraged super material graphene to develop a new hair dye that is less harmful [emphasis mine], non-damaging and lasts through many washes without fading. Graphene’s conductive nature also opens up new opportunities for hair, such as turning it into in situ electrodes or integrating it with wearable electronic devices.

Dying hair might seem simple and ordinary, but it’s actually a sophisticated chemical process. Called the cuticle, the outermost layer of a hair is made of cells that overlap in a scale-like pattern. Commercial dyes work by using harsh chemicals, such as ammonia and bleach, to first pry open the cuticle scales to allow colorant molecules inside and then trigger a reaction inside the hair to produce more color. Not only does this process cause hair to become more fragile, some of the small molecules are also quite toxic.

Huang and his team bypassed harmful chemicals altogether by leveraging the natural geometry of graphene sheets. While current hair dyes use a cocktail of small molecules that work by chemically altering the hair, graphene sheets are soft and flexible, so they wrap around each hair for an even coat. Huang’s ink formula also incorporates edible, non-toxic polymer binders to ensure that the graphene sticks — and lasts through at least 30 washes, which is the commercial requirement for permanent hair dye. An added bonus: graphene is anti-static, so it keeps winter-weather flyaways to a minimum.

“It’s similar to the difference between a wet paper towel and a tennis ball,” Huang explained, comparing the geometry of graphene to that of other black pigment particles, such as carbon black or iron oxide, which can only be used in temporary hair dyes. “The paper towel is going to wrap and stick much better. The ball-like particles are much more easily removed with shampoo.”

This geometry also contributes to why graphene is a safer alternative. Whereas small molecules can easily be inhaled or pass through the skin barrier, graphene is too big to enter the body. “Compared to those small molecules used in current hair dyes, graphene flakes are humongous,” said Huang, who is a member of Northwestern’s International Institute of Nanotechnology.

Ever since graphene — the two-dimensional network of carbon atoms — burst onto the science scene in 2004, the possibilities for the promising material have seemed nearly endless. With its ultra-strong and lightweight structure, graphene has potential for many applications in high-performance electronics, high-strength materials and energy devices. But development of those applications often require graphene materials to be as structurally perfect as possible in order to achieve extraordinary electrical, mechanical or thermal properties.

The most important graphene property for Huang’s hair dye, however, is simply its color: black. So Huang’s team used graphene oxide, an imperfect version of graphene that is a cheaper, more available oxidized derivative.

“Our hair dye solves a real-world problem without relying on very high-quality graphene, which is not easy to make,” Huang said. “Obviously more work needs to be done, but I feel optimistic about this application.”

Still, future versions of the dye could someday potentially leverage graphene’s notable properties, including its highly conductive nature.

“People could apply this dye to make hair conductive on the surface,” Huang said. “It could then be integrated with wearable electronics or become a conductive probe. We are only limited by our imagination.”

So far, Huang has developed graphene-based hair dyes in multiple shades of brown and black. Next, he plans to experiment with more colors.

Interestingly, the tiny note of caution”less harmful” doesn’t appear in the Cell Press news release. Never fear, Dr. Andrew Maynard (Director Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University) has written a March 20, 2018 essay on The Conversation suggesting a little further investigation (Note: Links have been removed),

Northwestern University’s press release proudly announced, “Graphene finds new application as nontoxic, anti-static hair dye.” The announcement spawned headlines like “Enough with the toxic hair dyes. We could use graphene instead,” and “’Miracle material’ graphene used to create the ultimate hair dye.”

From these headlines, you might be forgiven for getting the idea that the safety of graphene-based hair dyes is a done deal. Yet having studied the potential health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials for more years than I care to remember, I find such overly optimistic pronouncements worrying – especially when they’re not backed up by clear evidence.

Tiny materials, potentially bigger problems

Engineered nanomaterials like graphene and graphene oxide (the particular form used in the dye experiments) aren’t necessarily harmful. But nanomaterials can behave in unusual ways that depend on particle size, shape, chemistry and application. Because of this, researchers have long been cautious about giving them a clean bill of health without first testing them extensively. And while a large body of research to date doesn’t indicate graphene is particularly dangerous, neither does it suggest it’s completely safe.

A quick search of scientific papers over the past few years shows that, since 2004, over 2,000 studies have been published that mention graphene toxicity; nearly 500 were published in 2017 alone.

This growing body of research suggests that if graphene gets into your body or the environment in sufficient quantities, it could cause harm. A 2016 review, for instance, indicated that graphene oxide particles could result in lung damage at high doses (equivalent to around 0.7 grams of inhaled material). Another review published in 2017 suggested that these materials could affect the biology of some plants and algae, as well as invertebrates and vertebrates toward the lower end of the ecological pyramid. The authors of the 2017 study concluded that research “unequivocally confirms that graphene in any of its numerous forms and derivatives must be approached as a potentially hazardous material.”

These studies need to be approached with care, as the precise risks of graphene exposure will depend on how the material is used, how exposure occurs and how much of it is encountered. Yet there’s sufficient evidence to suggest that this substance should be used with caution – especially where there’s a high chance of exposure or that it could be released into the environment.

Unfortunately, graphene-based hair dyes tick both of these boxes. Used in this way, the substance is potentially inhalable (especially with spray-on products) and ingestible through careless use. It’s also almost guaranteed that excess graphene-containing dye will wash down the drain and into the environment.

Undermining other efforts?

I was alerted to just how counterproductive such headlines can be by my colleague Tim Harper, founder of G2O Water Technologies – a company that uses graphene oxide-coated membranes to treat wastewater. Like many companies in this area, G2O has been working to use graphene responsibly by minimizing the amount of graphene that ends up released to the environment.

Yet as Tim pointed out to me, if people are led to believe “that bunging a few grams of graphene down the drain every time you dye your hair is OK, this invalidates all the work we are doing making sure the few nanograms of graphene on our membranes stay put.” Many companies that use nanomaterials are trying to do the right thing, but it’s hard to justify the time and expense of being responsible when someone else’s more cavalier actions undercut your efforts.

Overpromising results and overlooking risk

This is where researchers and their institutions need to move beyond an “economy of promises” that spurs on hyperbole and discourages caution, and think more critically about how their statements may ultimately undermine responsible and beneficial development of a technology. They may even want to consider using guidelines, such as the Principles for Responsible Innovation developed by the organization Society Inside, for instance, to guide what they do and say.

If you have time, I encourage you to read Andrew’s piece in its entirety.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Multifunctional Graphene Hair Dye by Chong Luo, Lingye Zhou, Kevin Chiou, and Jiaxing Huang. Chem DOI: Publication stage: In Press Corrected Proof

This paper appears to be open access.

*Two paragraphs (repetitions) were deleted from the excerpt of Dr. Andrew Maynard’s essay on August 14, 2018

Panning for silver nanoparticles in your clothes washer

A March 20, 2018 news item on describes a new approach to treating wastewater (Note: Links have been removed),

Humans have known since ancient times that silver kills or stops the growth of many microorganisms. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have used silver preparations for treating ulcers and healing wounds. Until the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, colloidal silver (tiny particles suspended in a liquid) was a mainstay for treating burns, infected wounds and ulcers. Silver is still used today in wound dressings, in creams and as a coating on medical devices.

Since the 1990s, manufacturers have added silver nanoparticles to numerous consumer products to enhance their antibacterial and anti-odor properties. Examples include clothes, towels, undergarments, socks, toothpaste and soft toys. Nanoparticles are ultra-small particles, ranging from 1 to 100 nanometers in diameter – too small to see even with a microscope. According to a widely cited database, about one-fourth of nanomaterial-based consumer products currently marketed in the United States contain nanosilver.

Multiple studies have reported that nanosilver leaches out of textiles when they are laundered. Research also reveals that nanosilver may be toxic to humans and aquatic and marine organisms. Although it is widely used, little is understood about its fate or long-term toxic effects in the environment.

We are developing ways to convert this potential ecological crisis into an opportunity by recovering pure silver nanoparticles, which have many industrial applications, from laundry wastewater. In a recently published study, we describe a technique for silver recovery and discuss the key technical challenges. Our approach tackles this problem at the source – in this case, individual washing machines. We believe that this strategy has great promise for getting newly identified contaminants out of wastewater.

A March 20, 2018 essay by Sukalyan Sengupta, Professor of Wastewater Treatment, and Tabish Nawaz. Doctoral Student, both at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth on The Conversation website, which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

Use of nanosilver in consumer products has steadily risen in the past decade. The market share of silver-based textiles rose from 9 percent in 2004 to 25 percent in 2011.

Several investigators have measured the silver content of textiles and found values ranging from 0.009 to 21,600 milligrams of silver per kilogram of textile. Studies show that the amount of silver leached in the wash solution depends on many factors, including interactions between detergent and other chemicals and how silver is attached to the textiles.

In humans, exposure to silver can harm liver cells, skin and lungs. Prolonged exposure or exposure to a large dose can cause a condition called Argyria, in which the victim’s skin turns permanently bluish-gray.

Once silver goes down the drain and ends up at wastewater treatment plants, it can potentially harm bacterial treatment processes, making them less efficient, and foul treatment equipment. More than 90 percent of silver nanoparticles released in wastewater end up in nutrient-rich biosolids left over at the end of sewage treatment, which often are used on land as agricultural fertilizers.

Silver is toxic in aquatic environments, a concern that’s becoming more serious with the increased use of silver nanoparticles and awareness that oceans, rivers, and lakes are dangerously stressed.

Sengupta and Nawaz go on to describe their proposed solution (Note: Links have been removed),

Our research shows that the most efficient way to remove silver from wastewater is by treating it in the washing machine. At this point silver concentrations are relatively high, and silver is initially released from treated clothing in a chemical form that is feasible to recover.

A bit of chemistry is helpful here. Our recovery method employs a widely used chemistry process called ion exchange. Ions are atoms or molecules that have an electrical charge. In ion exchange, a solid and a liquid are brought together and exchange ions with each other.

For example, household soaps do not lather well in “hard” water, which contains high levels of ions such as magnesium and calcium. Many home water filters use ion exchange to “soften” the water, replacing those materials with other ions that do not affect its properties in the same way.

For this process to work, the ions that switch places must both be either positively or negatively charged. Nanosilver is initially released from textiles as silver ion, which is a cation – an ion with a positive charge (hence the plus sign in its chemical symbol, Ag+).

Even at the source, removing silver from washwater is challenging. Silver concentrations in the wash solution are relatively low compared to other cations, such as calcium, that could interfere with the removal process. Detergent chemistry complicates the picture further because some detergent components can potentially interact with silver.

To recover silver without picking up other chemicals, the recovery process must use materials that have a chemical affinity for silver. In a previous study, we described a potential solution: Using ion-exchange materials embedded with sulfur-based chemicals, which bind preferentially with silver.

In our new study, we passed washwater through an ion-exchange resin column and analyzed how each major detergent ingredient interacted with silver in the water and affected the resin’s ability to remove silver from the water. By manipulating process conditions such as pH, temperature and concentration of nonsilver cations, we were able to identify conditions that maximized silver recovery.

We found that pH and the levels of calcium ions (Ca2+) were critical factors. Higher levels of hydrogen or calcium ions bind up detergent ingredients and prevent them from interacting with silver ions, so the ion-exchange resin can remove the silver from the solution. We also found that some detergent ingredients – particularly bleaching and water-softening agents – made the ion-exchange resin work less efficiently. Depending on these conditions, we recovered between 20 percent and 99 percent of the silver in the washwater.

The researchers go on to propose a new approach to treating wastewater (Note: A link has been removed),

Today wastewater is collected from multiple sources, such as homes and businesses, and piped over long distances to centralized wastewater treatment plants. But increasing evidence shows that these facilities are ill-equipped to keep newly identified contaminants out of the environment, since they use one common treatment scheme for many different waste streams.

We believe the future is in decentralized systems that can treat different types of wastewater with specific technologies designed specifically for the materials they contain. If wastewater from laundromats contains different contaminants than wastewater from restaurants, why treat them the same way?

Interesting, non? In any event, here’s a link to and a citation for what I believe is the researchers’ latest paper on this subject,

Silver Recovery from Laundry Washwater: The Role of Detergent Chemistry by Tabish Nawaz and Sukalyan Sengupta. ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng., 2018, 6 (1), pp 600–608 DOI: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.7b02933 Publication Date (Web): November 21, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall. For anyone who can’t get access, Karla Lant provides a bit more technical detail about the work in her February 2, 2018 article for

Carbon nanotubes for water desalination

In discussions about water desalination and carbon nanomaterials,  it’s graphene that’s usually mentioned these days. By contrast, scientists from the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have turned to carbon nanotubes,

There are two news items about the work at LLNL on ScienceDaily, this first one originated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) offers a succinct summary of the work (from an August 24, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

At just the right size, carbon nanotubes can filter water with better efficiency than biological proteins, a new study reveals. The results could pave the way to new water filtration systems, at a time when demands for fresh water pose a global threat to sustainable development.

A class of biological proteins, called aquaporins, is able to effectively filter water, yet scientists have not been able to manufacture scalable systems that mimic this ability. Aquaporins usually exhibit channels for filtering water molecules at a narrow width of 0.3 nanometers, which forces the water molecules into a single-file chain.

Here, Ramya H. Tunuguntla and colleagues experimented with nanotubes of different widths to see which ones are best for filtering water. Intriguingly, they found that carbon nanotubes with a width of 0.8 nanometers outperformed aquaporins in filtering efficiency by a factor of six.

These narrow carbon nanotube porins (nCNTPs) were still slim enough to force the water molecules into a single-file chain. The researchers attribute the differences between aquaporins and nCNTPS to differences in hydrogen bonding — whereas pore-lining residues in aquaporins can donate or accept H bonds to incoming water molecules, the walls of CNTPs cannot form H bonds, permitting unimpeded water flow.

The nCNTPs in this study maintained permeability exceeding that of typical saltwater, only diminishing at very high salt concentrations. Lastly, the team found that by changing the charges at the mouth of the nanotube, they can alter the ion selectivity. This advancement is highlighted in a Perspective [in Science magazine] by Zuzanna Siwy and Francesco Fornasiero.

The second Aug. 24, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily offers a more technical  perspective,

Lawrence Livermore scientists, in collaboration with researchers at Northeastern University, have developed carbon nanotube pores that can exclude salt from seawater. The team also found that water permeability in carbon nanotubes (CNTs) with diameters smaller than a nanometer (0.8 nm) exceeds that of wider carbon nanotubes by an order of magnitude.

The nanotubes, hollow structures made of carbon atoms in a unique arrangement, are more than 50,000 times thinner than a human hair. The super smooth inner surface of the nanotube is responsible for their remarkably high water permeability, while the tiny pore size blocks larger salt ions.

There’s a rather lovely illustration for this work,

An artist’s depiction of the promise of carbon nanotube porins for desalination. The image depicts a stylized carbon nanotube pipe that delivers clean desalinated water from the ocean to a kitchen tap. Image by Ryan Chen/LLNL

An Aug. 24, 2017 LLNL news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the second news item, proceeds

Increasing demands for fresh water pose a global threat to sustainable development, resulting in water scarcity for 4 billion people. Current water purification technologies can benefit from the development of membranes with specialized pores that mimic highly efficient and water selective biological proteins.

“We found that carbon nanotubes with diameters smaller than a nanometer bear a key structural feature that enables enhanced transport. The narrow hydrophobic channel forces water to translocate in a single-file arrangement, a phenomenon similar to that found in the most efficient biological water transporters,” said Ramya Tunuguntla, an LLNL postdoctoral researcher and co-author of the manuscript appearing in the Aug. 24 [2017]edition of Science.

Computer simulations and experimental studies of water transport through CNTs with diameters larger than 1 nm showed enhanced water flow, but did not match the transport efficiency of biological proteins and did not separate salt efficiently, especially at higher salinities. The key breakthrough achieved by the LLNL team was to use smaller-diameter nanotubes that delivered the required boost in performance.

“These studies revealed the details of the water transport mechanism and showed that rational manipulation of these parameters can enhance pore efficiency,” said Meni Wanunu, a physics professor at Northeastern University and co-author on the study.

“Carbon nanotubes are a unique platform for studying molecular transport and nanofluidics,” said Alex Noy, LLNL principal investigator on the CNT project and a senior author on the paper. “Their sub-nanometer size, atomically smooth surfaces and similarity to cellular water transport channels make them exceptionally suited for this purpose, and it is very exciting to make a synthetic water channel that performs better than nature’s own.”

This discovery by the LLNL scientists and their colleagues has clear implications for the next generation of water purification technologies and will spur a renewed interest in development of the next generation of high-flux membranes.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Enhanced water permeability and tunable ion selectivity in subnanometer carbon nanotube porins by Ramya H. Tunuguntla, Robert Y. Henley, Yun-Chiao Yao, Tuan Anh Pham, Meni Wanunu, Aleksandr Noy. Science 25 Aug 2017: Vol. 357, Issue 6353, pp. 792-796 DOI: 10.1126/science.aan2438

This paper is behind a paywall.

And, Northeastern University issued an August 25, 2017 news release (also on EurekAlert) by Allie Nicodemo,

Earth is 70 percent water, but only a tiny portion—0.007 percent—is available to drink.

As potable water sources dwindle, global population increases every year. One potential solution to quenching the planet’s thirst is through desalinization—the process of removing salt from seawater. While tantalizing, this approach has always been too expensive and energy intensive for large-scale feasibility.

Now, researchers from Northeastern have made a discovery that could change that, making desalinization easier, faster and cheaper than ever before. In a paper published Thursday [August 24, 2017] in Science, the group describes how carbon nanotubes of a certain size act as the perfect filter for salt—the smallest and most abundant water contaminant.

Filtering water is tricky because water molecules want to stick together. The “H” in H2O is hydrogen, and hydrogen bonds are strong, requiring a lot of energy to separate. Water tends to bulk up and resist being filtered. But nanotubes do it rapidly, with ease.

A carbon nanotube is like an impossibly small rolled up sheet of paper, about a nanometer in diameter. For comparison, the diameter of a human hair is 50 to 70 micrometers—50,000 times wider. The tube’s miniscule size, exactly 0.8 nm, only allows one water molecule to pass through at a time. This single-file lineup disrupts the hydrogen bonds, so water can be pushed through the tubes at an accelerated pace, with no bulking.

“You can imagine if you’re a group of people trying to run through the hallway holding hands, it’s going to be a lot slower than running through the hallway single-file,” said co-author Meni Wanunu, associate professor of physics at Northeastern. Wanunu and post doctoral student Robert Henley collaborated with scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California to conduct the research.

Scientists led by Aleksandr Noy at Lawrence Livermore discovered last year [2016] that carbon nanotubes were an ideal channel for proton transport. For this new study, Henley brought expertise and technology from Wanunu’s Nanoscale Biophysics Lab to Noy’s lab, and together they took the research one step further.

In addition to being precisely the right size for passing single water molecules, carbon nanotubes have a negative electric charge. This causes them to reject anything with the same charge, like the negative ions in salt, as well as other unwanted particles.

“While salt has a hard time passing through because of the charge, water is a neutral molecule and passes through easily,” Wanunu said. Scientists in Noy’s lab had theorized that carbon nanotubes could be designed for specific ion selectivity, but they didn’t have a reliable system of measurement. Luckily, “That’s the bread and butter of what we do in Meni’s lab,” Henley said. “It created a nice symbiotic relationship.”

“Robert brought the cutting-edge measurement and design capabilities of Wanunu’s group to my lab, and he was indispensable in developing a new platform that we used to measure the ion selectivity of the nanotubes,” Noy said.

The result is a novel system that could have major implications for the future of water security. The study showed that carbon nanotubes are better at desalinization than any other existing method— natural or man-made.

To keep their momentum going, the two labs have partnered with a leading water purification organization based in Israel. And the group was recently awarded a National Science Foundation/Binational Science Foundation grant to conduct further studies and develop water filtration platforms based on their new method. As they continue the research, the researchers hope to start programs where students can learn the latest on water filtration technology—with the goal of increasing that 0.007 percent.

As is usual in these cases there’s a fair degree of repetition but there’s always at least one nugget of new information, in this case, a link to Israel. As I noted many times, the Middle East is experiencing serious water issues. My most recent ‘water and the Middle East’ piece is an August 21, 2017 post about rainmaking at the Masdar Institute in United Arab Emirates. Approximately 50% of the way down the posting, I mention Israel and Palestine’s conflict over water.

Masdar Institute and rainmaking

Water security, of course, is a key issue and of particular concern in many parts of the world including the Middle East. (In the Pacific Northwest, an area described as a temperate rain forest, there tends to be less awareness but even we are sometimes forced to ration water.) According to a July 5, 2017 posting by Bhok Thompson (on the Green Prophet website) scientists at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates [UA]E) have applied for a patent on a new technique for rainmaking,

Umbrella sales in the UAE may soon see a surge in pricing. Researchers at the Masdar Institute have filed for a provisional patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for their discovery – and innovative cloud seeding material that moves them closer to their goal of producing rain on demand. It appears to be a more practical approach than building artificial mountains.

Dr. Linda Zou is leading the project. A professor of chemical and environmental engineering, she is one of the first scientists to explore nanotechnology to enhance a cloud seeding material’s ability to produce rain. By filing a patent, the team is paving a way to commercialize their discovery, and aligning with Masdar Institute’s aim to position the UAE as a world leader in science and tech, specifically in the realm of environmental sustainability.

A January 31, 2017 posting by Erica Solomon for the Masdar Institute reveals more about the project,

The Masdar Institute research team that was one of the inaugural recipients of the US$ 5 million grant from the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science last year has made significant progress in their work as evidenced by the filing a provisional patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

By filing a patent on their innovative cloud seeding material, the research team is bringing the material in the pathway for commercialization, thereby supporting Masdar Institute’s goal of bolstering the United Arab Emirates’ local intellectual property, which is a key measure of the country’s innovation drive. It also signifies a milestone towards achieving greater water security in the UAE, as rainfall enhancement via cloud seeding can potentially increase rainfall between 10% to 30%, helping to refresh groundwater reserves, boost agricultural production, and reduce the country’s heavy reliance on freshwater produced by energy-intensive seawater desalination.

Masdar Institute Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, Dr. Linda Zou, is the principal investigator of this research project, and one of the first scientists in the world to explore the use of nanotechnology to enhance a cloud seeding material’s ability to produce rain.

“Using nanotechnology to accelerate water droplet formation on a typical cloud seeding material has never been researched before. It is a new approach that could revolutionize the development of cloud seeding materials and make them significantly more efficient and effective,” Dr. Zou remarked.

Conventional cloud seeding materials are small particles such as pure salt crystals, dry ice and silver iodide. These tiny particles, which are a few microns (one-thousandth of a millimeter) in size, act as the core around which water condenses in the clouds, stimulating water droplet growth. Once the air in the cloud reaches a certain level of saturation, it can no longer hold in that moisture, and rain falls. Cloud seeding essentially mimics what naturally occurs in clouds, but enhances the process by adding particles that can stimulate and accelerate the condensation process.

Dr. Zou and her collaborators, Dr. Mustapha Jouiad, Principal Research Scientist in Mechanical and Materials Engineering Department, postdoctoral researcher Dr. Nabil El Hadri and PhD student Haoran Liang, explored ways to improve the process of condensation on a pure salt crystal by layering it with a thin coating of titanium dioxide.

The extremely thin coating measures around 50 nanometers, which is more than one thousand times thinner than a human hair. Despite the coating’s miniscule size, the titanium dioxide’s effect on the salt’s condensation efficiency is significant. Titanium dioxide is a hydrophilic photocatalyst, which means that when in contact with water vapor in the cloud, it helps to initiate and sustain the water vapor adsorption and condensation on the nanoparticle’s surface. This important property of the cloud seeding material speeds up the formation of large water droplets for rainfall.

Dr. Zou’s team found that the titanium dioxide coating improved the salt’s ability to adsorb and condense water vapor over 100 times compared to a pure salt crystal. Such an increase in condensation efficiency could improve a cloud’s ability to produce more precipitation, making rain enhancement operations more efficient and effective. The research will now move to the next stage of simulated cloud and field testing in the future.

Dr. Zou’s research grant covers two more years of research. During this time, her team will continue to study different design concepts and structures for cloud seeding materials inspired by nanotechnology.

To give you a sense of the urgent need for these technologies, here’s the title from my Aug. 24, 2015 posting, The Gaza is running out of water by 2016 if the United Nations predictions are correct. I’ve not come across any updates on the situation in the Gaza Strip but both Israel and Palestine have recently signed a deal concerning water. Dalia Hatuqa’s August 2017 feature on the water deal for Al Jazeera is critical primarily of Israel (as might be expected) but there are one or two subtle criticisms of Palestine too,

Critics have also warned that the plan does not address Israeli restrictions on Palestinian access to water and the development of infrastructure needed to address the water crisis in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians in the West Bank consume only 70 litres of water per capita per day, well below what the World Health Organization recommends as a minimum (100).

In the most vulnerable communities in Area C – those not connected to the water network – that number further drops to 20, according to EWASH, a coalition of Palestinian and international organisations working on water and sanitation in the Palestinian territories.

The recent bilateral agreement, which does not increase the Palestinians’ quota of water in the Jordan River, makes an untenable situation permanent and guarantees Israel a lion’s share of its water, thus reinforcing the status quo, Buttu [Diana Buttu, a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team] said.

“They have moved away from the idea that water is a shared resource and instead adopted the approach that Israel controls and allocates water to Palestinians,” she added. “Israel has been selling water to Palestinians for a long time, but this is enshrining it even further by saying that this is the way to alleviate the water problem.”

Israeli officials say that water problems in the territories could have been addressed had the Palestinians attended the meetings of the joint committee. Palestinians attribute their refusal to conditions set by their counterparts, namely that they must support Israeli settlement water projects for any Palestinian water improvements to be approved.

According to Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon, “There are many things to be done together to upgrade the water infrastructure in the PA. We are talking about old, leaking pipes, and a more rational use of water.” He also pointed to the illegal tapping into pipes, which he maintained Palestinians did because they did not want to pay for water. “This is something we’ve been wanting to do over the years, and the new water agreement is one of the ways to deal with that. The new agreement … is not only about water quotas; it’s also about more coherent and better use of water, in order to address the needs of the Palestinians.”

But water specialists say that the root cause of the problem is not illegal activity, but the unavailability of water resources to Palestinians and the mismanagement and diversion of the Jordan River.

Access to water is gong to be of increasing urgency should temperatures continue to rise as they have. In many parts of the world, potable water is not easy to find and if temperatures continue to rise areas that did have some water security will lose it and the potential for conflict rises hugely. Palestine and Israel may be a harbinger of what’s to come. As for the commodification of water, I have trouble accepting it; I think everyone has a right to water.

Using only sunlight to desalinate water

The researchers seem to believe that this new desalination technique could be a game changer. From a June 20, 2017 news item on Azonano,

An off-grid technology using only the energy from sunlight to transform salt water into fresh drinking water has been developed as an outcome of the effort from a federally funded research.

The desalination system uses a combination of light-harvesting nanophotonics and membrane distillation technology and is considered to be the first major innovation from the Center for Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT), which is a multi-institutional engineering research center located at Rice University.

NEWT’s “nanophotonics-enabled solar membrane distillation” technology (NESMD) integrates tried-and-true water treatment methods with cutting-edge nanotechnology capable of transforming sunlight to heat. …

A June 19, 2017 Rice University news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

More than 18,000 desalination plants operate in 150 countries, but NEWT’s desalination technology is unlike any other used today.

“Direct solar desalination could be a game changer for some of the estimated 1 billion people who lack access to clean drinking water,” said Rice scientist and water treatment expert Qilin Li, a corresponding author on the study. “This off-grid technology is capable of providing sufficient clean water for family use in a compact footprint, and it can be scaled up to provide water for larger communities.”

The oldest method for making freshwater from salt water is distillation. Salt water is boiled, and the steam is captured and run through a condensing coil. Distillation has been used for centuries, but it requires complex infrastructure and is energy inefficient due to the amount of heat required to boil water and produce steam. More than half the cost of operating a water distillation plant is for energy.

An emerging technology for desalination is membrane distillation, where hot salt water is flowed across one side of a porous membrane and cold freshwater is flowed across the other. Water vapor is naturally drawn through the membrane from the hot to the cold side, and because the seawater need not be boiled, the energy requirements are less than they would be for traditional distillation. However, the energy costs are still significant because heat is continuously lost from the hot side of the membrane to the cold.

“Unlike traditional membrane distillation, NESMD benefits from increasing efficiency with scale,” said Rice’s Naomi Halas, a corresponding author on the paper and the leader of NEWT’s nanophotonics research efforts. “It requires minimal pumping energy for optimal distillate conversion, and there are a number of ways we can further optimize the technology to make it more productive and efficient.”

NEWT’s new technology builds upon research in Halas’ lab to create engineered nanoparticles that harvest as much as 80 percent of sunlight to generate steam. By adding low-cost, commercially available nanoparticles to a porous membrane, NEWT has essentially turned the membrane itself into a one-sided heating element that alone heats the water to drive membrane distillation.

“The integration of photothermal heating capabilities within a water purification membrane for direct, solar-driven desalination opens new opportunities in water purification,” said Yale University ‘s Menachem “Meny” Elimelech, a co-author of the new study and NEWT’s lead researcher for membrane processes.

In the PNAS study, researchers offered proof-of-concept results based on tests with an NESMD chamber about the size of three postage stamps and just a few millimeters thick. The distillation membrane in the chamber contained a specially designed top layer of carbon black nanoparticles infused into a porous polymer. The light-capturing nanoparticles heated the entire surface of the membrane when exposed to sunlight. A thin half-millimeter-thick layer of salt water flowed atop the carbon-black layer, and a cool freshwater stream flowed below.

Li, the leader of NEWT’s advanced treatment test beds at Rice, said the water production rate increased greatly by concentrating the sunlight. “The intensity got up 17.5 kilowatts per meter squared when a lens was used to concentrate sunlight by 25 times, and the water production increased to about 6 liters per meter squared per hour.”

Li said NEWT’s research team has already made a much larger system that contains a panel that is about 70 centimeters by 25 centimeters. Ultimately, she said, NEWT hopes to produce a modular system where users could order as many panels as they needed based on their daily water demands.

“You could assemble these together, just as you would the panels in a solar farm,” she said. “Depending on the water production rate you need, you could calculate how much membrane area you would need. For example, if you need 20 liters per hour, and the panels produce 6 liters per hour per square meter, you would order a little over 3 square meters of panels.”

Established by the National Science Foundation in 2015, NEWT aims to develop compact, mobile, off-grid water-treatment systems that can provide clean water to millions of people who lack it and make U.S. energy production more sustainable and cost-effective. NEWT, which is expected to leverage more than $40 million in federal and industrial support over the next decade, is the first NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) in Houston and only the third in Texas since NSF began the ERC program in 1985. NEWT focuses on applications for humanitarian emergency response, rural water systems and wastewater treatment and reuse at remote sites, including both onshore and offshore drilling platforms for oil and gas exploration.

There is a video but it is focused on the NEWT center rather than any specific water technologies,

For anyone interested in the technology, here’s a link to and a citation for the researchers’ paper,

Nanophotonics-enabled solar membrane distillation for off-grid water purification by Pratiksha D. Dongare, Alessandro Alabastri, Seth Pedersen, Katherine R. Zodrow, Nathaniel J. Hogan, Oara Neumann, Jinjian Wu, Tianxiao Wang, Akshay Deshmukh,f, Menachem Elimelech, Qilin Li, Peter Nordlander, and Naomi J. Halas. PNAS {Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] doi: 10.1073/pnas.1701835114 June 19, 2017

This paper appears to be open access.

Sustainable water desalination with self-cleaning membranes

This desalination technology comes from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). from an April 13, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

An advanced water treatment membrane made of electrically conductive nanofibers developed at Masdar Institute was highlighted by Dr. Raed Hashaikeh, Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Masdar Institute, in his keynote speech during the 3rd International Conference on Desalination using Membrane Technology held last week in Spain.

An April 13, 2017 Masdar Institute press release by Erica Solomon, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Self-cleaning membranes offer a critically needed solution to the problem of fouling, which is the unwanted build-up of organic and inorganic deposits on a membrane’s surface that reduces the membrane’s ability to filter impurities. Water treatment and purification membranes that can easily clean themselves when fouled could make pressure-driven membrane filtration systems used to treat and desalinate water more energy-efficient.

“Keeping membranes clean, permeable and functional is a great challenge to membrane desalination technologies. When a membrane becomes fouled, its pores get blocked and its flux is severely reduced, which means that much less water can pass through the membrane at a constant pressure,” Dr. Hashaikeh explained.

Conventional methods for cleaning fouled membranes involve expensive and harsh chemical treatments, and often lead to water treatment plant shut-downs, which can cost millions of dollars in lost operational hours. In the UAE, annual spending on desalination is already estimated to cost AED12 billion, indicating a pressing need for solutions that avoid costly shut-downs and treatments.

In addition to posing a heavy financial burden, fouled membranes are also a sustainability issue, as once a membrane becomes fouled, the higher pressure needed to push water through clogged pores significantly increases the plant’s energy consumption. The harsh chemicals used to clean a fouled membrane are also bad for the environment and require neutralizing. Thus, finding a way to easily and quickly clean fouled membranes not only makes financial sense, but environmental sense.

In a country like the UAE, where natural gas-powered thermal desalination produces over 80% of the country’s domestic water, innovative technologies like self-cleaning membranes to support a shift toward lower-energy and lower-cost membrane-based desalination are essential for achieving economic and environmental balance while meeting the UAE’s water demands.

And now, Dr. Hashaikeh’s research group may have brought the UAE closer towards realizing a more sustainable and economic approach to membrane desalination through their research on the application of advanced nanofibers for enhanced, self-cleaning membranes.

The group has leveraged the electrically conductive nature of a special kind of nanofiber, called carbon nanotubes (CNT). CNTs are tiny cylindrical tubes made of tightly bonded carbon atoms, measuring just one atom thick. But the CNTs Dr. Hashaikeh’s team used, which were provided by global security, aerospace, and information technology company Lockheed Martin, are not ordinary CNTs.

“The carbon nanostructures supplied by Lockheed Martin are special; they are networked. This means that they are composed of many interconnecting channels that branch off in all directions. This interconnectivity is what enables the entire membrane to become completely cleaned when electricity is applied to it,” Dr. Hashaikeh said.

The networked CNTs, also known as carbon nanostructures (CNS), coupled with the team’s expert membrane fabrication know-how, resulted in the development of two different types of membranes that can clean themselves when a low-voltage electric current is run through them.

The first type is a microfiltration membrane, which has pores sizes ranging from 100 nanometers to 10 micrometers, where a nanometer is approximately one hundred thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair and a micrometer one thousand times larger than a nanometer. The second is a nanofiltration membrane with pore sizes ranging from one to ten nanometers. Both membranes demonstrated the ability to clean themselves in response to an electric shock, which resulted in the immediate restoration of the membranes’ flux.

Dr. Hashaikeh’s investigation of a self-cleaning membrane began four years ago, when he realized that electrolytic cleaning – which is the process of removing soil, scale or corrosion from a metal’s surface by subjecting it to an electric current – could also be used to clean membranes. To prove his theory, he coated a membrane with ordinary CNTs. When a voltage was applied to the membrane, the parts of the membranes that were coated with CNTs were successfully cleaned. Dr. Hashaikeh filed a patent for this in-situ electrolytic cleaning process with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in 2014.

However, there were limitations to this discovery, namely that only specific areas in the coated CNTs were cleaned, not the entire membrane. Thus, to develop an efficient, self-cleaning membrane with commercial potential, Dr. Hashaikeh required a material that would easily allow electric shockwaves to penetrate through the entire membrane’s surface area.

The unique, interconnected structure of Lockheed Martin’s carbon nanostructures proved to be just the right type of electrically conductive, nano-fibrous material required.

“We immediately recognized that Lockheed Martin’s CNTs might enable electricity to pass through the entire surface, but we had to modify the nanostructures to transform the material into a membrane. To do this, we controlled certain properties, such as wettability and pore size, and improved its mechanical strength by incorporating polymer materials,” he explained.

Dr. Haishaikeh’s team successfully developed a self-cleaning microfiltration membrane in 2014 and a paper describing the research was published in the Journal of Membrane Science. But they did not stop there; they wanted to take their research a step further and find a way to develop a self-cleaning nanofiltration membrane. While microfiltration membranes are useful for removing larger particles, including sand, silt, clays, algae and some forms of bacteria, nanofiltration membranes can go a step further, removing most organic molecules, nearly all viruses, most of the natural organic matter and a range of salts. Nanofiltration membranes also remove divalent ions, which make water hard, making nanofiltration a popular and eco-friendly option to soften hard water.

To create self-cleaning nanofiltration membranes out of Lockheed Martin’s networked CNTs, the team needed to overcome the problem of the CNTs’ large pore sizes, which prevented the material from functioning as a nanofiltration membrane.

To achieve this they looked to a second advanced nanofiber material previously developed by Dr. Hashaikeh’s research group, known as networked cellulose. Networked cellulose is a modified type of cellulose made from wood pulp. When dried, the networked cellulose gel shrinks in volume, but maintains its integrity and shape, becoming harder as it shrinks. The research team asserted that the networked cellulose gel could reduce the membrane’s pore sizes while maintaining its structural integrity.

The researchers then mixed the carbon nanostructures with the networked cellulose gel and as the mixture dried, the networked cellulose shrank. The shrinking of the network cellulose in turn pressurized the nanostructures in the membrane. The resulting membrane is strong with much smaller pore sizes. Dr. Hashaikeh reports that the pore size dropped from 60 nanometers to just three nanometers with the addition of the networked cellulose in a paper describing the study, which was published in the journal Desalination last month. Co-authors from Masdar Institute include PhD student Farah Ahmad and postdoctoral researcher Boor Lalia, along with Dr. Nidal Hilal of Swansea University.

Dr. Hashaikeh’s prolific scientific contribution to the field of membrane desalination has led to his recent appointment as an associate editor for the journal Desalination; a position that is essential to the quality of the international journal and its peer review process.

The innovative research conducted by Dr. Hashaikeh and the team will help position Abu Dhabi as a leader in membrane desalination research and technology development. This project has already yielded a patent filing, and is hoped to provide the emirate with novel intellectual property in the critical industry of desalination.

Here are the links and citations for the 2014 and 2017 papers,

A novel in situ membrane cleaning method using periodic electrolysis by Raed Hashaikeh, Boor Singh Lalia, Victor Kochkodan, Nidal Hilal. Journal of Membrane Science Volume 471, 1 December 2014, Pages 149–154

Electrically conducting nanofiltration membranes based on networked cellulose and carbon nanostructures by Farah Ejaz Ahmed, Boor Singh Lalia, Nidal Hilal, Raed Hashaikeh. Desalination Volume 406, 16 March 2017, Pages 60–66

Both papers a behind a paywall.

‘Hunting’ pharmaceuticals and removing them from water

Pharmaceuticals are not the first pollutants people think of when discussing water pollution but, for those who don’t know, it’s a big issue and scientists at the University of Surrey (UK) have developed a technology they believe will help to relieve the contamination. From an April 10, 2017 University of Surrey press release (also on EurekAlert),

The research involves the detection and removal of pharmaceuticals in or from water, as contamination from pharmaceuticals can enter the aquatic environment as a result of their use for the treatment of humans and animals. This contamination can be excreted unchanged, as metabolites, as unused discharge or by drug manufacturers.

The research has found that a new type of ‘supermolecule’, calix[4], actively seeks certain pharmaceuticals and removes them from water.

Contamination of water is a serious concern for environmental scientists around the world, as substances include hormones from the contraceptive pill, and pesticides and herbicides from allotments. Contamination can also include toxic metals such as mercury, arsenic, or cadmium, which was previously used in paint, or substances that endanger vital species such as bees.

Professor Danil de Namor, University of Surrey Emeritus Professor and leader of the research, said: “Preliminary extraction data are encouraging as far as the use of this receptor for the selective removal of these drugs from water and the possibility of constructing a calix[4]-based sensing devices.

“From here, we can design receptors so that they can bind selectively with pollutants in the water so the pollutants can be effectively removed. This research will allow us to know exactly what is in the water, and from here it will be tested in industrial water supplies, so there will be cleaner water for everyone.

“The research also creates the possibility of using these materials for on-site monitoring of water, without having to transport samples to the laboratory.”

Dr Brendan Howlin, University of Surrey co-investigator, said: “This study allows us to visualise the specific receptor-drug interactions leading to the selective behaviour of the receptor. As well as the health benefits of this research, molecular simulation is a powerful technique that is applicable to a wide range of materials.

“We were very proud that the work was carried out with PhD students and a final year project student, and research activities are already taking place with the Department of Chemical and Processing Engineering (CPI) and the Advanced Technology Institute (ATI).

“We are also very pleased to see that as soon as the paper was published online by the European Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, we received invitations to give keynote lectures at two international conferences on pharmaceuticals in Europe later this year.”

That last paragraph is intriguing and it marks the first time I’ve seen that claim in a press release announcing the publication of a piece of research.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A calix[4]arene derivative and its selective interaction with drugs (clofibric acid, diclofenac and aspirin) by Angela F Danil de Namor, Maan Al Nuaim, Jose A Villanueva Salas, Sophie Bryant, Brendan Howlin. European Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences Volume 100, 30 March 2017, Pages 1–8

This paper is behind a paywall.

Edible water bottles by Ooho!

Courtesy: Skipping Rocks Lab

As far as I’m concerned, that looks more like a breast implant than a water bottle, which, from a psycho-social perspective, could lead to some interesting research papers. It is, in fact a new type of water bottle.  From an April 10, 2017 article by Adele Peters for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

If you run in a race in London in the near future and pass a hydration station, you may be handed a small, bubble-like sphere of water instead of a bottle. The gelatinous packaging, called the Ooho, is compostable–or even edible, if you want to swallow it. And after two years of development, its designers are ready to bring it to market.

Three London-based design students first created a prototype of the edible bottle in 2014 as an alternative to plastic bottles. The idea gained internet hype (though also some scorn for a hilarious video that made the early prototypes look fairly impossible to use without soaking yourself).
The problem it was designed to solve–the number of disposable bottles in landfills–keeps growing. In the U.K. alone, around 16 million are trashed each day; another 19 million are recycled, but still have the environmental footprint of a product made from oil. In the U.S., recycling rates are even lower. …

The new packaging is based on the culinary technique of spherification, which is also used to make fake caviar and the tiny juice balls added to boba tea [bubble tea?]. Dip a ball of ice in calcium chloride and brown algae extract, and you can form a spherical membrane that keeps holding the ice as it melts and returns to room temperature.

An April 25, 2014 article by Kashmira Gander for describes the technology and some of the problems that had to be solved before bringing this product to market,

To make the bottle [Ooho!], students at the Imperial College London gave a frozen ball of water a gelatinous layer by dipping it into a calcium chloride solution.

They then soaked the ball in another solution made from brown algae extract to encapsulate the ice in a second membrane, and reinforce the structure.

However, Ooho still has teething problems, as the membrane is only as thick as a fruit skin, and therefore makes transporting the object more difficult than a regular bottle of water.

“This is a problem we’re trying to address with a double container,” Rodrigo García González, who created Ooho with fellow students Pierre Paslier and Guillaume Couche, explained to the Smithsonian. “The idea is that we can pack several individual edible Oohos into a bigger Ooho container [to make] a thicker and more resistant membrane.”

According to Peters’ Fast Company article, the issues have been resolved,

Because the membrane is made from food ingredients, you can eat it instead of throwing it away. The Jell-O-like packaging doesn’t have a natural taste, but it’s possible to add flavors to make it more appetizing.

The package doesn’t have to be eaten every time, since it’s also compostable. “When people try it for the first time, they want to eat it because it’s part of the experience,” says Pierre Paslier, cofounder of Skipping Rocks Lab, the startup developing the packaging. “Then it will be just like the peel of a fruit. You’re not expected to eat the peel of your orange or banana. We are trying to follow the example set by nature for packaging.”

The outer layer of the package is always meant to be peeled like fruit–one thin outer layer of the membrane peels away to keep the inner layer clean and can then be composted. (While compostable cups are an alternative solution, many can only be composted in industrial facilities; the Ooho can be tossed on a simple home compost pile, where it will decompose within weeks).

The company is targeting both outdoor events and cafes. “Where we see a lot of potential for Ooho is outdoor events–festivals, marathons, places where basically there are a lot of people consuming packaging over a very short amount of time,” says Paslier.

I encourage you to read Peters’ article in its entirety if you have the time. You can also find more information on the Skipping Rocks Lab website and on the company’s crowdfunding campaign on CrowdCube.