New technology could help purify water in the US and developing countries

  • New technologies contribute to the provision of clean drinking water worldwide.
  • Minnesota officials recently purchased a machine to remove hazardous substances known as PFAS.
  • Experts assume that by 2050 six billion people will suffer from water scarcity due to climate change.

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Clean water is scarce in many parts of the world, but new technologies could help.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recently purchased machines to remove levels of hazardous substances known as PFAS. The high-tech system works by injecting outside air into contaminated water, turning PFAS into foam that can be separated from the water. It’s one of a growing number of devices helping to make water safer.

“Less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface is actually freshwater,” said Prakash Govindan, co-founder of Gradiant, a company that makes water purification technology, in an email interview with Lifewire. “Water is a very limited resource and water scarcity is the first sign of climate change.”

Water, water, everywhere

With the Minnesota machine, PFAS levels are significantly reduced when the foam is removed and the water is returned to the environment. The PFAS concentrate then goes to another unit, a second machine, where the carbon-fluorine bonds (the backbone of PFAS chemicals) are broken by electrochemical oxidation.

“This pilot project marks the beginning of a new era for PFAS cleaning in Minnesota,” said MPCA Commissioner Katrina Kessler in a press release. “This study will help us address PFAS contamination at the source and develop long-term cleaner water solutions to ensure safe drinking water for Minnesota residents. We hope to eventually deploy this technology across the state, including in the greater Minnesota area, where PFAS is a growing concern.”

No drop to spare

The need for technology like that used in Minnesota is great, experts say. By 2050, six billion people will suffer from water scarcity as a result of climate change. 85 percent of them live in low- and middle-income countries, noted Neil Grimmer, brand president of renewable drinking water company SOURCE Global, in an email interview with Lifewire. He said part of the problem is that water technology hasn’t changed much since Roman times.

“This outdated system of pumps, sewage treatment plants and miles of pipes often doesn’t reach remote locations and isn’t economical for poor countries and communities,” Grimmer said. “So we need innovation. We need new thinking and if we solve the problem in the countries where the greatest challenges exist, we can bring clean water to the rest of the world.”

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Recent clean water technologies include innovations in micro-irrigation technology that require no electricity or filtration and can save vast amounts of water used in agriculture. Some companies are using AI to identify and fix drinking water leaks in real time, and researchers are working on technology that can filter water more effectively and even detect contaminants.

Gradiant offers membrane technologies, used to separate water from pollutant particles based on size and charge, that have evolved in recent years and are “one of the most important” water purification technologies today, Govindan said. Other approaches, including Gradiant’s carrier gas extraction, which mimic the natural rain cycle, ion exchange and free radical oxidation, “play an important role” in the treatment of industrial wastewater.

Ginger Rothrock, a senior director at HG Ventures, a firm that funds sustainability entrepreneurs, said via email that new methods of trapping pollutants involve capture media (powders that specifically hold contaminants) or electric fields that attract and deposit heavy metals. For example, one company HGV invests in, Electramet, uses electricity to pull metals from a waste stream, much like a Brita filter.

“This is particularly important for regulated metals such as copper and chromium, which have known human health implications,” Rothrock added.

Data could also be an important tool to create clean water. Non-profit charity water has introduced a new type of water sensor that monitors water projects in remote locations in Africa and Asia. The device can remotely monitor water usage and the condition of hand pumps in real time using an IoT-based sensor. The sensor costs less than $250 and connects to local telcos around the world.

“Developing countries often face the brunt of water problems, although even in the US we find things like arsenic and Forever Chemicals in our water supply, and [there have been] Droughts in many states,” said Riggs Eckelberry, CEO of OriginClear, a water technology company, in an email. “Put simply, we need to clean, recycle and protect our water supply wherever we can.”


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