In 2014, the United Nations estimated that 3.5 billion people across the globe were living with sub-standard access to potable water, of which 768 million had almost no regular access at all. With many areas of the world in drought, governments are resigning themselves to a future of developing large-scale water infrastructure projects, including energy efficient treatment and desalination plants. But what if the secret to clean water could be found not through better desalination, but by hacking an atomic scale material that is already projected to be the building block of the computers of tomorrow? Advances in nanomaterials, most importantly, atomic scale organic carbon fullerenes, are widely heralded as ushering in a new era of technological discovery. Graphene, once only a theory, was first produced in a lab in 2004. Since then, universities and governments have poured millions into nanomaterial research, opening new frontiers in materials science and producing innovations and discoveries that will likely change industries ranging from computing to healthcare to civil engineering. In the midst of a wild stampede to produce the next microscopic quantum computing chipset, scientists are beginning to consider how the unique shape and properties of nanomaterials can be configured in order to replace or refine existing resources crucial to our existence, including water.

water purification with titanium dioxide
water purification with titanium dioxide

With many known water purification and treatment options at our disposal, why explore a new technology, with many unknowns, like nanomaterials? The primary reason is that the rate of demand for clean water exceeds the pace at which governments can build traditional water treatment infrastructure to meet that demand. As a result, the most successful water purification technologies will be those that are both scalable for large-scale treatment, and deployable through decentralized networks for individual use. Of all known purification methodologies, only nanomaterials meet both standards. Unlike existing treatments, nanomaterials promise 2-way scalability, on top of efficiency, speed and cost-effectiveness. The secret sauce lies in the unique physical structure of nanomaterials, which provides a porous surface through which both biological and inorganic contaminants can be filtered out. Compared to the energy intensive reverse osmosis system, nanomaterials can filter water utilizing 500 times fewer units of energy per unit of water filtered.

The advances made by scientists in applying nanomaterials to water purification demonstrate a growing trend in translating or repurposing known technologies for alternative purposes. Recent advances in water purification nanotechnology demonstrates how an improved understanding of physical design and structural composition married with strategy can move us away from designing “purification systems” to the Naked Value of providing clean water.

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