The rose may be one of the most iconic symbols of the fragility of love in popular culture, but now the flower could hold more than just symbolic value. A new device for collecting and purifying water, developed at The University of Texas at Austin, was inspired by a rose and, while more engineered than enchanted, is a dramatic improvement on current methods. Each flower-like structure costs less than 2 cents and can produce more than half a gallon of water per hour per square meter.
A team led by associate professor Donglei (Emma) Fan in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering developed a new approach to solar steaming for water production – a technique that uses energy from sunlight to separate salt and other impurities from water through evaporation.
In a paper published in the most recent issue of the journal Advanced Materials, the authors outline how an origami rose provided the inspiration for developing a new kind of solar-steaming system made from layered, black paper sheets shaped into petals. Attached to a stem-like tube that collects untreated water from any water source, the 3D rose shape makes it easier for the structure to collect and retain more liquid.
Current solar-steaming technologies are usually expensive, bulky and produce limited results. The team’s method uses inexpensive materials that are portable and lightweight. Oh, and it also looks just like a black-petaled rose in a glass jar.
Those in the know would more accurately describe it as a portable low-pressure controlled solar-steaming-collection “unisystem.” But its resemblance to a flower is no coincidence.
“We were searching for more efficient ways to apply the solar-steaming technique for water production by using black filtered paper coated with a special type of polymer, known as polypyrrole,” Fan said.
Polypyrrole is a material known for its photothermal properties, meaning it’s particularly good at converting solar light into thermal heat.
Fan and her team experimented with a number of different ways to shape the paper to see what was best for achieving optimal water retention levels. They began by placing single, round layers of the coated paper flat on the ground under direct sunlight. The single sheets showed promise as water collectors but not in sufficient amounts. After toying with a few other shapes, Fan was inspired by a book she read in high school. Although not about roses per se, “The Black Tulip” by Alexandre Dumas gave her the idea to try using a flower-like shape, and she discovered the rose to be ideal. Its structure allowed more direct sunlight to hit the photothermic material – with more internal reflections – than other floral shapes and also provided enlarged surface area for water vapor to dissipate from the material.
The device collects water through its stem-like tube – feeding it to the flower-shaped structure on top. It can also collect rain drops coming from above. Water finds its way to the petals where the polypyrrole material coating the flower turns the water into steam. Impurities naturally separate from water when condensed in this way.
“We designed the purification-collection unisystem to include a connection point for a low-pressure pump to help condense the water more effectively,” said Weigu Li, a Ph.D. candidate in Fan’s lab and lead author on the paper. “Once it is condensed, the glass jar is designed to be compact, sturdy and secure for storing clean water.”
The device removes any contamination from heavy metals and bacteria, and it removes salt from seawater, producing clean water that meets drinking standard requirements set by the World Health Organization.
“Our rational design and low-cost fabrication of 3D origami photothermal materials represents a first-of-its-kind portable low-pressure solar-steaming-collection system,” Li said. “This could inspire new paradigms of solar-steaming technologies in clean water production for individuals and homes.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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  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.
For the uninitiated, Timbits are also known as donut holes. Tim Hortons, founded by ex-National Hockey League player Tim Horton who has since deceased, has taken hold in the Canada’s language and culture such that one of our scientists trying to to explain nanotechnology thought it would be best understood in terms of Timbits. From a Jan. 14, 2017 article (How nanotechnology could change our lives) by Vanessa Lu for thestar.com,
The future is all in the tiny.
Known as nanoparticles, these are the tiniest particles, so small that we can’t see them or even imagine how small they are.
University of Waterloo’s Frank Gu paints a picture of their scale.
“Take a Timbit and start slicing it into smaller and smaller pieces, so small that every Canadian — about 35 million of us — can hold a piece of the treat,” he said. “And those tiny pieces are still a little bigger than a nanoparticle.”
For years, consumers have seen the benefits of nanotechnology in everything from shrinking cellphones to ultrathin televisions. Apple’s iPhones have become more powerful as they have become smaller — where a chip now holds billions of transistors.
“As you go smaller, it creates less footprint and more power,” said Gu, who holds the Canada research chair in advanced targeted delivery systems. “FaceTime, Skype — they are all powered by nanotechnology, with their retina display.”
When scientists go with their gut or act on a hunch, it can pay off.
For Tim Leshuk, a PhD student in nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo, he knew it was a long shot.
Leshuk had been working with Frank Gu, who leads a nanotechnology research group, on using tiny nanoparticles that have been tweaked with certain properties to purify contaminated water.
Leshuk was working on the process, treating dirty water such as that found in Alberta’s oilsands, with the nanoparticles combined with ultraviolet light. He wondered what might happen if exposed to actual sunlight.
“I didn’t have high hopes,” he said. “For the heck of it, I took some beakers out and put them on the roof. And when I came back, it was far more effective that we had seen with regular UV light.
“It was high-fives all around,” Leshuk said. “It’s not like a Brita filter or a sponge that just soaks up pollutants. It completely breaks them down.”
Things are accelerating quickly, with a spinoff company now formally created called H2nanO, with more ongoing tests scheduled. The research has drawn attention from oilsands companies, and [a] large pre-pilot project to be funded by the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance is due to get under way soon.
The excitement comes because it’s an entirely green process, converting solar energy for cleanup, and the nanoparticle material is reuseable, over and over.
As for the oilsands, it’s been an interesting few days with the Prime Minister’s (Justin Trudeau) suggestion that dependence would be phased out causing a furor of sorts. From a Jan. 13, 2017 article by James Wood for the Calgary Herald,
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s musings about phasing out the oilsands Friday [Jan. 13, 2017] were met with a barrage of criticism from Alberta’s conservative politicians and a pledge from Premier Rachel Notley that the province’s energy industry was “not going anywhere, any time soon.”
Asked at a town hall event in Peterborough [Ontario] about the federal government’s recent approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Trudeau reiterated his longstanding remarks that he is attempting to balance economic and environmental concerns.
“We can’t shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out. We need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels but it’s going to take time and in the meantime we have to manage that transition,” he added.
Northern Alberta’s oilsands are a prime target for environmentalists because of their significant output of greenhouse gas emissions linked to global climate change.
Trudeau, who will be in Calgary for a cabinet retreat on Jan. 23 and 24 , also said again that it is the responsibility of the national government to get Canadian resources to market.
Meanwhile, Jane Fonda, Hollywood actress, weighed in on the issue of the Alberta oilsands with this (from a Jan. 11, 2017 article by Tristan Hopper for the National Post),
Fort McMurrayites might have assumed the celebrity visits would stop after the city was swept first by recession, and then by wildfire.
Or when the provincial government introduced a carbon tax and started phasing out coal.
And surely, with Donald Trump in the White House, even the oiliest corner of Canada would shift to the activist back burner.
But no; here comes Jane Fonda.
“We don’t need new pipelines,” she told a Wednesday [Jan. 11, 2017] press conference at the University of Alberta where she also dismissed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “good-looking Liberal” who couldn’t be trusted.
Saying that her voice was joined with the “Indigenous people of Canada,” Fonda explained her trip to Alberta by saying “when you’re famous you can help amplify the voices of people that can’t necessarily get a lot of press people to come out.”
Fonda is in Alberta at the invitation of Greenpeace, which has brought her here in support of the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion — a group of Canadian First Nations and U.S. tribes opposed to new pipelines to the Athabasca oilsands.
Appearing alongside Fonda, at a table with a sign reading “Respect Indigenous Decisions,” was Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, who, as leader of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, has led anti-pipeline protests and litigation in British Columbia.
“The future is going to be incredibly litigious,” he said in reference to the approved expansion of the Trans-Mountain pipeline.
The event also included Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which is leading a legal challenge to federal approval of the Line 3 pipeline.
Although much of Athabasca’s oil production now comes from “steam-assisted gravity drainage” projects that requires minimal surface disturbance, on Tuesday Fonda took the requisite helicopter tour of a Fort McMurray-area open pit mine.
As you can see, there are not going to be any easy answers.
A*STAR (Singapore’s Agency for Science Technology and Research) has developed a new technology for cleaning up oil spills according to an Oct. 11, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,
Oceanic oil spills are tough to clean up. They dye feathers a syrupy sepia and tan fish eggs a toxic tint. The more turbulent the waters, the farther the slick spreads, with inky droplets descending into the briny deep.
Now technology may be able to succeed where hard-working volunteers have failed in the past. Researchers at the A*STAR Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) are using nanotechnology to turn an oil spill into a floating mass of brown jelly that can be scooped up before it can make its way into the food chain.
“Nanoscience makes it possible to tailor the essential structures of materials at the nanometer scale to achieve specific properties,” says chemist Yugen Zhang at IBN, who is developing some of the technologies. “Structures and materials in the nanometer size range often take on distinctive properties that are not seen in other size ranges,” adds Huaqiang Zeng, another chemist at IBN.
There are many approaches to cleaning an oil spill, and none are completely effective. Fresh, thick grease can be set ablaze or contained by floating barriers for skimmers to scoop out. The slick can also be inefficiently hardened, messily absorbed, hazardously dispersed, or slowly consumed by oil-grazing bacteria. All of these are deficient on a large scale, especially in rough waters.
Organic molecules with special gelling abilities offer a cheap, simple and environmentally friendly alternative for cleaning up the mess. Zeng has developed several such molecules that turn crude oil into jelly within minutes.
To create his ‘supergelators’, Zeng designed the molecules to associate with each other without forming physical bonds. When sprayed on contaminated seawater, the molecules immediately bundle into long fibers between 40 and 800 nanometers wide. These threads create a web that traps the interspersed oil in a giant blob that floats on the water’s surface. The gunk can then be swiftly sieved out of the ocean. Valuable crude oil can later be reclaimed using a common technique employed by petroleum refineries called fractional distillation.
Zeng tested the supergelators on four types of crude oil with different densities, viscosities and sulfur levels in a small round dish. The results were impressive. “The supergelators solidified both freshly spilled crude oil and highly weathered crude oil 37 to 60 times their own weight,” says Zeng. The materials used to produce these organic molecules are cheap and non toxic, which make them a commercially viable solution for managing accidents out at sea. Zeng hopes to work with industrial partners to test the nanomolecules on a much larger scale.
Zeng and his colleagues have developed other other ‘water’ applications as well,
Scientists at IBN are also using nanoscience to remove salt from seawater and heavy metals from contaminated water.
With dwindling global fresh and ground water reserves, many countries are looking to desalination as a viable source of drinking water. Desalination is expected to meet 30 per cent of the water demand of Singapore by 2060, which will mean tripling the country’s current desalination capacity. But desalination demands huge energy consumption and reverse osmosis, the mainstream technology it depends on, has a relatively high cost. Reverse osmosis works by using extreme pressures to squeeze water molecules through tightly knit membranes.
An emerging alternative solution mimics the way proteins embedded in cell membranes, known as aquaporins, channel water in and out. Some research groups have even created membranes made of fatty lipid molecules that can accommodate natural aquaporins. Zeng has developed a cheaper and more resilient replacement.
His building blocks consist of helical noodles with sticky ends that connect to form long spirals. Water molecules can flow through the 0.3 nanometer openings at the center of the spirals, but all the other positively and negatively charged ions that make up saltwater are too bulky to pass. These include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chlorine and sulfur oxide. “In water, all of these ions are highly hydrated, attached to lots of water molecules, which makes them too large to go through the channels,” says Zeng.
The technology could lead to global savings of up to US$5 billion a year, says Zeng, but only after several more years of testing and tweaking the lipid membrane’s compatibility and stability with the nanospirals. “This is a major focus in my group right now,” he says. “We want to get this done, so that we can reduce the cost of water desalination to an acceptable level.”
Stick and non-stick
Nanomaterials also offer a low-cost, effective and sustainable way to filter out toxic metals from drinking water.
Heavy metal levels in drinking water are stringently regulated due to the severe damage the substances can cause to health, even at very low concentrations. The World Health Organization requires that levels of lead, for example, remain below ten parts per billion (ppb). Treating water to these standards is expensive and extremely difficult.
Zhang has developed an organic substance filled with pores that can trap and remove toxic metals from water to less than one ppb. Each pore is ten to twenty nanometers wide and packed with compounds, known as amines that stick to the metals.
Exploiting the fact that amines lose their grip over the metals in acidic conditions, the valuable and limited resource can be recovered by industry, and the polymers reused.
The secret behind the success of Zhang’s polymers is the large surface area covered by the pores, which translates into more opportunities to interact with and trap the metals. “Other materials have a surface area of about 100 square meters per gram, but ours is 1,000 square meters per gram,” says Zhang. “It is 10 times higher.”
Zhang tested his nanoporous polymers on water contaminated with lead. He sprinkled a powdered version of the polymer into a slightly alkaline liquid containing close to 100 ppb of lead. Within seconds, lead levels reduced to below 0.2 ppb. Similar results were observed for cadmium, copper and palladium. Washing the polymers in acid released up to 93 per cent of the lead.
With many companies keen to scale these technologies for real-world applications, it won’t be long before nanoscience treats the Earth for its many maladies.
I wonder if the researchers have found industrial partners (who could be named) to bring these solutions for oil spill cleanups, desalination, and water purification to the market.
There’s been more than one piece here about water desalination and purification and/or remediation efforts and at least one of them claims to have successfully overcome issues such as reverse osmosis energy needs which are hampering adoption of various technologies. Now, researchers at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana have developed another new technique for desalinating water while reverse osmosis issues according to a Nov. 11, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed) ,
University of Illinois engineers have found an energy-efficient material for removing salt from seawater that could provide a rebuttal to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s lament, “Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink.”
The material, a nanometer-thick sheet of molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) riddled with tiny holes called nanopores, is specially designed to let high volumes of water through but keep salt and other contaminates out, a process called desalination. In a study published in the journal Nature Communications (“Water desalination with a single-layer MoS2 nanopore”), the Illinois team modeled various thin-film membranes and found that MoS2 showed the greatest efficiency, filtering through up to 70 percent more water than graphene membranes. [emphasis mine]
“Even though we have a lot of water on this planet, there is very little that is drinkable,” said study leader Narayana Aluru, a U. of I. professor of mechanical science and engineering. “If we could find a low-cost, efficient way to purify sea water, we would be making good strides in solving the water crisis.
“Finding materials for efficient desalination has been a big issue, and I think this work lays the foundation for next-generation materials. These materials are efficient in terms of energy usage and fouling, which are issues that have plagued desalination technology for a long time,” said Aluru, who also is affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the U. of I.
Most available desalination technologies rely on a process called reverse osmosis to push seawater through a thin plastic membrane to make fresh water. The membrane has holes in it small enough to not let salt or dirt through, but large enough to let water through. They are very good at filtering out salt, but yield only a trickle of fresh water. Although thin to the eye, these membranes are still relatively thick for filtering on the molecular level, so a lot of pressure has to be applied to push the water through.
“Reverse osmosis is a very expensive process,” Aluru said. “It’s very energy intensive. A lot of power is required to do this process, and it’s not very efficient. In addition, the membranes fail because of clogging. So we’d like to make it cheaper and make the membranes more efficient so they don’t fail as often. We also don’t want to have to use a lot of pressure to get a high flow rate of water.”
One way to dramatically increase the water flow is to make the membrane thinner, since the required force is proportional to the membrane thickness. Researchers have been looking at nanometer-thin membranes such as graphene. However, graphene presents its own challenges in the way it interacts with water.
Aluru’s group has previously studied MoS2 nanopores as a platform for DNA sequencing and decided to explore its properties for water desalination. Using the Blue Waters supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the U. of I., they found that a single-layer sheet of MoS2 outperformed its competitors thanks to a combination of thinness, pore geometry and chemical properties.
A MoS2 molecule has one molybdenum atom sandwiched between two sulfur atoms. A sheet of MoS2, then, has sulfur coating either side with the molybdenum in the center. The researchers found that creating a pore in the sheet that left an exposed ring of molybdenum around the center of the pore created a nozzle-like shape that drew water through the pore.
“MoS2 has inherent advantages in that the molybdenum in the center attracts water, then the sulfur on the other side pushes it away, so we have much higher rate of water going through the pore,” said graduate student Mohammad Heiranian, the first author of the study. “It’s inherent in the chemistry of MoS2 and the geometry of the pore, so we don’t have to functionalize the pore, which is a very complex process with graphene.”
In addition to the chemical properties, the single-layer sheets of MoS2 have the advantages of thinness, requiring much less energy, which in turn dramatically reduces operating costs. MoS2 also is a robust material, so even such a thin sheet is able to withstand the necessary pressures and water volumes.
The Illinois researchers are establishing collaborations to experimentally test MoS2 for water desalination and to test its rate of fouling, or clogging of the pores, a major problem for plastic membranes. MoS2 is a relatively new material, but the researchers believe that manufacturing techniques will improve as its high performance becomes more sought-after for various applications.
“Nanotechnology could play a great role in reducing the cost of desalination plants and making them energy efficient,” said Amir Barati Farimani, who worked on the study as a graduate student at Illinois and is now a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. “I’m in California now, and there’s a lot of talk about the drought and how to tackle it. I’m very hopeful that this work can help the designers of desalination plants. This type of thin membrane can increase return on investment because they are much more energy efficient.”
In a July 13, 2015 essay on Nanotechnology Now, Tim Harper provides an overview of the research into using graphene for water desalination and purification/remediation about which he is quite hopeful. There is no mention of an issue with interactions between water and graphene. It should be noted that Tim Harper is the Chief Executive Officer of G20, a company which produces a graphene-based solution (graphene oxide sheets), which can desalinate water and can purify/remediate it. Tim is a scientist and while you might have some hesitation given his fiscal interests, his essay is worthwhile reading as he supplies context and explanations of the science.
If the notion that people are in imminent danger of dying from thirst isn’t compelling enough, there’s this account of the situation and a possible solution in an August 24, 2015 posting by observers, Abou Assi and Majdi Fathi, with journalist, Dorothée Myriam Kellou for observers.france24.com,
Each year, Gaza’s population uses 180 million cubic metres of water but only has capacity for 60 million cubic metres of water usage per year. Running out of water is a constant fear for Gazans.
To understand the context of the crisis, we first spoke to our Observer Majdi Fathi, a photographer who lives in Gaza. He described the daily struggles of living in a place with a shortage of potable water.
The water that comes out of the taps in Gaza is too salty to drink. We only use it for washing. We have to buy bottled water to drink. Each family goes to water vendors. [Editor’s note : Often, families buy water from private companies who run desalination plants with little regulation. Though the water quality is often criticised, it’s still very expensive]. People frequently pay about $2 for 500 litres of water. There are ten people in my family and we can live on 500 litres for about 25 days. Though the authorities give some free water to the very poorest, it’s not enough.
We are all worried about the water shortage. Often, the taps run dry and we end up having to use the drinking water that we purchased for cleaning. Buying water from vendors is not a long-term, sustainable solution!
In a June 25, 2013 posting, I included (in an update) some information about the Gaza situation in the context of water issues in Israel and a special project with the University of Chicago designed to address those issues,
ETA June 27, 2013: There is no hint in the University of Chicago news releases that these water projects will benefit any parties other than Israel and the US but it is tempting to hope that this work might also have an impact in Palestine given its current water crisis there as described in a June 26, 2013 news item in the World Bulletin (Note: Links have been removed),
A tiny wedge of land jammed between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean sea, the Gaza Strip is heading inexorably into a water crisis that the United Nations says could make the Palestinian enclave unliveable in just a few years.
With 90-95 percent of the territory’s only aquifer contaminated by sewage, chemicals and seawater, neighbourhood desalination facilities and their public taps are a lifesaver for some of Gaza’s 1.6 million residents.
But these small-scale projects provide water for only about 20 percent of the population, forcing many more residents in the impoverished Gaza Strip to buy bottled water at a premium.
“There is a crisis. There is a serious deficit in the water resources in Gaza and there is a serious deterioration in the water quality,” said Rebhi El Sheikh, deputy chairman of the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA).
A NASA study of satellite data released this year showed that between 2003 and 2009 the region lost 144 cubic km of stored freshwater – equivalent to the amount of water held in the Dead Sea – making an already bad situation much worse.
But the situation in Gaza is particularly acute, with the United Nations warning that its sole aquifer might be unusable by 2016, with the damage potentially irreversible by 2020.
Abou Assi, a Palestinian engineer, thinks he may have a solution (from the observers.france24.com Aug. 24, 2015 posting),
The water table, which is the main source of drinking water in Gaza, is being over-exploited and is also polluted by both nitrates used in agriculture and by sea water. Gaza’s groundwater could run out as soon as next year, according to the United Nations.
While I was working on my masters in engineering at the Islamic University in Gaza, I started looking for a radical solution to the problem. Seeing as Gaza is located on the shores of the Mediterranean, I started considering a filtration system that could desalinate sea water.
There are seven different desalination plants in Gaza. They each produce between 45 and 80 cubic metres of water an hour. The problem is that all of these factories use the reverse osmosis procedure [Editor’s note: This is a water purification system that uses a semipermeable membrane to remove larger particles, including salt molecules, from water molecules].
Even though the method is ingenious, it requires a lot of energy. This is a problem in Gaza, because we also have a major energy shortage. Our power plant, which provides Gaza with about a third of its energy, regularly stops working due to fuel shortages.
My team and I conducted 170 experiments in 14 months before we managed to create a machine that reduced the salinity of the seawater enough to make it drinkable.
The machine is very simple: it pumps sea water very quickly through iron pipes. The water passes through electrical boxes that push the water through membranes made from nanomaterials. The membranes have tiny, microscopic pores that block the sodium chloride (salt) molecules but allow the water molecules to go through. After the water is filtered, the useful minerals are re-injected. After all this, the water that comes out of the taps is clean enough to drink!
With this machine, it’s possible to treat one cubic metre of water per day, using 60% less energy than with the old system. The water meets the quality standards of the World Health Organisation, which puts limits on a number of substances, including chlorine, limestone, lead, nitrates, pesticides and bacteria. For now, some so-called “drinkable” water in Gaza has nitrate levels that can reach up to 220 mg per litre even though the WHO recommends a limit of 50 mg per litre. Poorly treated drinking water can cause many health problems, especially for children. [Editor’s note: The WHO recently noted an increase in cases of children with diarrhea in Gaza].
Assi has gone into debt to finance his research despite the fact he has received grants for this work (from the observers.france24.com Aug. 24, 2015 posting),
In order to transition from the prototype to a practical application, I need more financial support. I would like to create a model of a smaller version that could be put into people’s homes in Gaza. In order to develop this, all I need is about $20,000.
That said, in order to really resolve the drinking water crisis across Gaza, we would need to build a desalination plant that uses this technique. That would be expensive — about $300,000 million – and there would always be the fear that the plant would be bombed, like with the power plant.
We have attempted to discuss our ideas with officials in both Gaza and Ramallah but, for the time being, we have received no response. We hope for support both from Palestinian institutions and from the international community.
There doesn’t yet seem to be a website or Facebook page or other means of contacting and/or lending other kinds of support to Assi. Hopefully, he will have something soon.
In a February 24, 2014 posting, I featured a nanotechnology laboratory in Oman where they were studying and working to develop desalination technologies. (I noticed that Assi received a grant for his work from the Middle East Desalination Research Center in Oman.)
SlingShot focuses on Segway inventor Dean Kamen, his fascinating life, and his work to solve the world’s water crisis.
Iconoclast, Kamen, is a modern hero. His inventions, mostly medical devices, help people in need and ease suffering. Several documentaries have been produced about the world’s dire water challenges. SlingShot is a film about an indomitable man who just might have enough passion, will, and innovative thinking to create a solution for a crisis that affects billions.
A quirky genius with a sharp wit and a provocative worldview, Kamen is our era’s Thomas Edison. He takes on the world’s grand challenges one invention at a time. Best known for his Segway Human Transporter, Kamen has reconceived kidney dialysis, engineered an electric wheelchair that can travel up stairs (the iBot), reworked the heart stent, built portable insulin pumps, founded FIRST robotics to inspire young students, and on and on. Holder of over 440 U.S. and foreign patents, Kamen devotes himself to dreaming up products that improve people’s lives. For the last 15 years, he has relentlessly pursued an effective way to clean up the world’s water supply.
Fifty percent of all human illness is the result of water borne pathogens. Dean Kamen has invented an energy efficient vapor compression distiller that can turn any unfit source of water (seawater, poisoned well water, river sludge, etc.) into potable, safe water without any need for chemical additives or filters. Kamen has nicknamed his device the SlingShot as in the David and Goliath story. In Kamen’s imagining, undeveloped countries are filled with little Davids, and just like the biblical slingshot and stone, the SlingShot device is the tiny piece of technology that is going to take down the gigantic Goliath of bad water.
David lists upcoming US screenings of the documentary and speculates as to a possible market for the system in the US. From David’s Aug. 2, 2015 posting,
It’s worth noting that while Kamen’s target markets for the Slingshot device are in the developing world, the drought in the Western United States may generate additional demand for the Slingshot. The water conservation tips on the film’s website are worth following, and perhaps some enterprising (or desperate) local government may try to address its water troubles through judicious use of technology like the Slingshot.
You can check the Slingshot documentary Upcoming webpage for US and international screenings, as well as, a list of screenings stretching back to March 2014. Should you wish to host a screening, there’s the Host a Screening webpage.
Unfortunately, I was not able to find any technical details, additional to those on the About page, regarding Kamen’s vapor compression distiller (Slingshot).
Making a graphene filter that allows water to pass through while screening out salt and/or noxious materials has been more challenging than one might think. According to a May 7, 2015 news item on Nanowerk, graphene filters can be ‘leaky’,
For faster, longer-lasting water filters, some scientists are looking to graphene –thin, strong sheets of carbon — to serve as ultrathin membranes, filtering out contaminants to quickly purify high volumes of water.
Graphene’s unique properties make it a potentially ideal membrane for water filtration or desalination. But there’s been one main drawback to its wider use: Making membranes in one-atom-thick layers of graphene is a meticulous process that can tear the thin material — creating defects through which contaminants can leak.
Now engineers at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) have devised a process to repair these leaks, filling cracks and plugging holes using a combination of chemical deposition and polymerization techniques. The team then used a process it developed previously to create tiny, uniform pores in the material, small enough to allow only water to pass through.
Combining these two techniques, the researchers were able to engineer a relatively large defect-free graphene membrane — about the size of a penny. The membrane’s size is significant: To be exploited as a filtration membrane, graphene would have to be manufactured at a scale of centimeters, or larger.
In experiments, the researchers pumped water through a graphene membrane treated with both defect-sealing and pore-producing processes, and found that water flowed through at rates comparable to current desalination membranes. The graphene was able to filter out most large-molecule contaminants, such as magnesium sulfate and dextran.
Rohit Karnik, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, says the group’s results, published in the journal Nano Letters, represent the first success in plugging graphene’s leaks.
“We’ve been able to seal defects, at least on the lab scale, to realize molecular filtration across a macroscopic area of graphene, which has not been possible before,” Karnik says. “If we have better process control, maybe in the future we don’t even need defect sealing. But I think it’s very unlikely that we’ll ever have perfect graphene — there will always be some need to control leakages. These two [techniques] are examples which enable filtration.”
Sean O’Hern, a former graduate research assistant at MIT, is the paper’s first author. Other contributors include MIT graduate student Doojoon Jang, former graduate student Suman Bose, and Professor Jing Kong.
A delicate transfer
“The current types of membranes that can produce freshwater from saltwater are fairly thick, on the order of 200 nanometers,” O’Hern says. “The benefit of a graphene membrane is, instead of being hundreds of nanometers thick, we’re on the order of three angstroms — 600 times thinner than existing membranes. This enables you to have a higher flow rate over the same area.”
O’Hern and Karnik have been investigating graphene’s potential as a filtration membrane for the past several years. In 2009, the group began fabricating membranes from graphene grown on copper — a metal that supports the growth of graphene across relatively large areas. However, copper is impermeable, requiring the group to transfer the graphene to a porous substrate following fabrication.
However, O’Hern noticed that this transfer process would create tears in graphene. What’s more, he observed intrinsic defects created during the growth process, resulting perhaps from impurities in the original material.
Plugging graphene’s leaks
To plug graphene’s leaks, the team came up with a technique to first tackle the smaller intrinsic defects, then the larger transfer-induced defects. For the intrinsic defects, the researchers used a process called “atomic layer deposition,” placing the graphene membrane in a vacuum chamber, then pulsing in a hafnium-containing chemical that does not normally interact with graphene. However, if the chemical comes in contact with a small opening in graphene, it will tend to stick to that opening, attracted by the area’s higher surface energy.
The team applied several rounds of atomic layer deposition, finding that the deposited hafnium oxide successfully filled in graphene’s nanometer-scale intrinsic defects. However, O’Hern realized that using the same process to fill in much larger holes and tears — on the order of hundreds of nanometers — would require too much time.
Instead, he and his colleagues came up with a second technique to fill in larger defects, using a process called “interfacial polymerization” that is often employed in membrane synthesis. After they filled in graphene’s intrinsic defects, the researchers submerged the membrane at the interface of two solutions: a water bath and an organic solvent that, like oil, does not mix with water.
In the two solutions, the researchers dissolved two different molecules that can react to form nylon. Once O’Hern placed the graphene membrane at the interface of the two solutions, he observed that nylon plugs formed only in tears and holes — regions where the two molecules could come in contact because of tears in the otherwise impermeable graphene — effectively sealing the remaining defects.
Using a technique they developed last year, the researchers then etched tiny, uniform holes in graphene — small enough to let water molecules through, but not larger contaminants. In experiments, the group tested the membrane with water containing several different molecules, including salt, and found that the membrane rejected up to 90 percent of larger molecules. However, it let salt through at a faster rate than water.
The preliminary tests suggest that graphene may be a viable alternative to existing filtration membranes, although Karnik says techniques to seal its defects and control its permeability will need further improvements.
“Water desalination and nanofiltration are big applications where, if things work out and this technology withstands the different demands of real-world tests, it would have a large impact,” Karnik says. “But one could also imagine applications for fine chemical- or biological-sample processing, where these membranes could be useful. And this is the first report of a centimeter-scale graphene membrane that does any kind of molecular filtration. That’s exciting.”
De-en Jiang, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of California at Riverside, sees the defect-sealing technique as “a great advance toward making graphene filtration a reality.”
“The two-step technique is very smart: sealing the defects while preserving the desired pores for filtration,” says Jiang, who did not contribute to the research. “This would make the scale-up much easier. One can produce a large graphene membrane first, not worrying about the defects, which can be sealed later.”
I have featured graphene and water desalination work before from these researchers at MIT in a Feb. 27, 2014 posting. Interestingly, there was no mention of problems with defects in the news release highlighting this previous work.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the latest paper,
Dec. 16, 2014 Egypt’s Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab along with other ministers and Dr. Ahmed Zewail, Chairman of the board of Zewail City of Science and Technology (this seems to be a campus with a university and a number of research institutes), announced Egypt’s Center for Nanotechnology (from a Zewail City of Science and Technology Dec. 16, 2014 press release),
The Center, funded by the National Bank of Egypt, cost over $ 100 Million and is, till this moment, the biggest research Center Egypt has seen. This center is hailed as a turning point in the development of scientific research in Egypt as it will allow researchers to develop nanoparticles and nanostructured applications that will improve, even revolutionize, many technology and industry sectors including: information technology, energy, environmental science, medicine, and food safety among many others.
During the visit, Dr. Zewail gave Mahlab and the Cabinet members a brief introduction about the City’s constituents, achievements, and how it is going to improve Egypt’s economic development.
Impressed by the magnitude of Zewail City, Mahalab expressed his excitement about the effect this project is going to have on the future of scientific research in Egypt.
Following the opening ceremony, they all moved to the construction site of the soon-to-be Zewail City new premises, in Hadayk October, to evaluate the progress of the construction process. This construction work is the result of the presidential decree issued on April 9, 2014 to allocate 200 acres for Zewail City in 6th of October City. The construction work is expected to be done by the end of 2015, and will approximately cost $ 1.5 billion.
The end of 2015 is a very ambitious goal for completion of this center but these projects can sometimes inspire people to extraordinary efforts and there seems to be quite a bit of excitement about this one if the video is any indication. From a Dec. 22, 2014 posting by Makula Dunbar, which features a CCTV Africa clip, on AFKInsider,
I was interested to learn from the clip that Egypt’s new constitution mandates at least 1% of the GDP (gross domestic product) must be earmarked for scientific research.
As for Ahmed Zewail, in addition to being Chairman of the board of Zewail City of Science and Technology, he is also a professor at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech). From his CalTech biography page (Note: A link has been removed),
Ahmed Zewail is the Linus Pauling Chair professor of chemistry and professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). For ten years, he served as the Director of the National Science Foundation’s Laboratory for Molecular Sciences (LMS), and is currently the Director of the Moore Foundation’s Center for Physical Biology at Caltech.
On April 27, 2009, President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and in November of the same year, he was named the First United States Science Envoy to the Middle East.
The CalTech bio page is a bit modest, Zewail’s Wikipedia entry gives a better sense of this researcher’s eminence (Note: Links have been removed),
Ahmed Hassan Zewail (Arabic: أحمد حسن زويل, IPA: [ˈæħmæd ˈħæsæn zeˈweːl]; born February 26, 1946) is an Egyptian- American scientist, known as the “father of femtochemistry”, he won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on femtochemistry and became the first Egyptian scientist to win a Nobel Prize in a scientific field. …
If you watched the video, you may have heard a reference to ‘other universities’. The comment comes into better focus after reading about the dispute between Nile University and Zewail City (from the Wikipedia entry),
Nile University has been fighting with Zewail City of Science and Technology, established by Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail, for more than two years over a piece of land that both universities claim to be their own.
A March 22, 2014 ruling turned down challenges to a verdict issued in April 2013 submitted by Zewail City. The court also ruled in favour of the return of Nile University students to the contested buildings.
In a statement released by Nile University’s Student Union before Saturday’s decision, the students stated that the verdict would test the current government’s respect to the judiciary and its rulings.
Zewail City, meanwhile, stressed in a statement released on Saturday that the recent verdict rules on an urgent level; the substantive level of the case is yet to be ruled on. Sherif Fouad, Zewail City’s spokesman and media adviser, said the verdict “adds nothing new.” It is impossible for Zewail City to implement Saturday’s verdict and take Nile University students into the buildings currently occupied by Zewail City students, he said.
If I understand things rightly, the government has pushed forward with this Zewail City initiative (Center for Nanotechnology) while the ‘City’ is still in a dispute over students and buildings with Nile University. This should make for some interesting dynamics (tension) for students, instructors, and administrators of both the institutions and may not result in those dearly hoped for scientific advances that the government is promoting. Hopefully, the institutions will resolve their conflict in the interest of promoting good research.