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Carlo Montemagno

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Some News We Can All Drink (Water) To

Posted: 04/16/2014 2:49 pm

I took to the streets with a shovel last week.

No, I haven't lost my mind; I was taking advantage of the warmer weather and decided to give Mother Nature a hand with the great spring thaw.

I diligently chipped away at the ice and watched the water weave a new path to the drain. The last thing I want after this seemingly endless winter is a soggy basement or mucky backyard.

Anyone who knows me will confirm that I've had water on the brain for some time.

Some of my research over the last decade has focused on innovative systems to purify and treat water. It's something I'm very passionate about as I am well aware of the significance of our global water challenges.

Water is an area where we simply can't compromise. It is central to our existence.

Water makes up roughly 60 per cent of our adult bodies, supports our biological functions, and is essential for the plants and animals around us. It is truly our most precious resource.

Another interesting statistic is that although 70 per cent of the earth is water, only 2.5 per cent is fresh water, and our growing global population has an insatiable thirst. In fact, it has been reported that by 2025, almost half of the world's population will be affected by a water crisis.

Although water treatment and purification technology offer hope, most current desalination technologies are based on energy-intensive processes that are limited and carry a big price tag.

Now, I recognize that my blog is not the place to drown you in the science details, so I'll encourage those looking for the nitty-gritty about water purification processes and membranes to check out our latest science dive on the Ingenuity Lab website and I'll cut straight to the work we've been doing using a naturally-existing water channel protein called Aquaporin.

These projects are really exciting for me personally because Ingenuity Lab researchers have been able to build on my earlier patented discoveries and we have made significant progress using Aquaporin as the functional unit in our water purification membranes.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Aquaporins, they are water-transport proteins that play an important osmoregulatory role in living organisms. These tiny membrane proteins have been described as the inner plumbing in our cells. They boast exceptionally high water permeability (~ 1010 water molecules/s), high selectivity for water molecules, and operate at a low energy cost.

These very characteristics make aquaporin-embedded membranes a better choice than conventional reverse osmosis membranes when it comes to purification of brackish water, seawater, as well as agricultural and industrial wastewater.

Although introduced a decade ago, only recently has the proof-of-concept for aquaporin-based water purification been demonstrated. The ultimate success of this technology hinges on improved membrane performance which is affected by the following three variables:

  1. activity of aquaporin in the membrane (rate of water transport),
  2. design concept of the protein-incorporated membrane matrix and
  3. membrane manufacturability.

Since aquaporin-incorporated membranes are the key component to attaining higher levels of salt rejection and water flux, Ingenuity Lab has two intense research efforts underway.

The first is to enhance the quality and properties of the materials used to produce aquaporin-based membranes. Through genetic modification, we are looking to improve both the production yield and the stability of the aquaporin. We are also engineering new materials to house the aquaporin molecules to form stable, biocompatible membranes that provide structural support and eliminate leakage around the protein. This is crucial because efficient assembly of functional aquaporin with biomimetic materials is essential to maximizes the effectiveness of the invention.

Ingenuity Lab's second major research effort focuses on the development of new methods for assembling and fabricating water purification membranes using novel design concepts. The goal of this task is to develop a production platform that both protects aquaporin from mechanical and chemical stresses and, enables low cost, scalable production.

Both research projects hold great promise. Ingenuity's water purification membranes will be applied to treat wastewater, irrigation water, industrial process water, and seawater with a lower energy requirement and higher efficiency than any currently available treatment technology. Opening up opportunities for economic development while conserving this precious resource.

Ultimately, this manufacturability-driven membrane design strategy will contribute to the cost-competitive expansion of agriculture into global regions that previously could not support food production and provide relief to urban areas that are stressed to meet the water needs of their expanding populace. Now I know this is all fairly complex but trust me, it is news that we can all drink to.

 

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