Nanotech and Water: It Took Ten Years Just To Get To The Starting Line

It is just over four years since I drove through an ice storm in Georgia and South Carolina for the meeting that led to the founding of G2O Water Technologies.  In case anyone thinks that this was the toughest bit of entrepreneurship, let me give you the background story.

Tim Harper, it took ice storms and a decade of research to set up G2O Water using graphene

Nine hours of driving through this wasn’t the toughest bit of setting up G2O Water Technologies

My involvement with water began in September 2004 when along with the Club of Amsterdam I organised a conference, Nanowater.

Setting realistic expectations I said in 2004  “We don’t expect to see safe, affordable water across the globe in the timescales that some nanotech pundits have claimed. We have to be realistic. By bringing the water industry into contact with the nanotechnology community, in the presence of policy and decision-makers, we can define where the technologies intersect.”

“The aim of the NanoWater conference is to examine how nanotechnology can help address the issues facing the world’s water supplies. According to Unesco, although 70 percent of the world’s surface is covered by water, only a fraction of that – 2.5 percent – is freshwater, of which 70 percent is frozen in ice caps. The remainder is present as soil moisture. This leaves less than one per cent of the world’s freshwater resources accessible for human use.

Nanotechnology, while providing only a few radical new technologies for desalination, purification or waste water recovery, does have the ability to tilt the economic balance of many existing water related technologies in favour of large scale use. NanoWater will provide insight on those nanotechnologies and how they can be leveraged into the Water Industry to make them not only economically feasible but desirable.”

Wired produced a good report headlined Water Filters Rely On Nanotech and reported that a slow, methodical transformation of the $400-billion-a-year water-management industry is currently in progress, and nanotechnology appears to be leading the way.

Driving through an ice storm

An ice storm provides a good illustration of how water can sometimes be in the wrong place and the wrong format!

With a dozen speakers from leading nanotechnology companies and research institutions we were expecting some interest from the water industry, especially as we co-located it with a large water industry conference Aquatech. While a number of companies showed up, sat quietly at the back and took notes, there was little in the way of real engagement. Given that this was around the time that the UK’s Prince Charles was talking about how nanotechnology could destroy the planet, the reluctance to mix nanotech and drinking water was entirely understandable.

However, this did lead to a project involving the Peres Centre for Peace and a growing understanding of how finding a way of providing clean water to more people could help solve a wide range of issues from alleviating poverty to improving the environment.

That led to a 10-year search for a filtration system that actually worked. Like everything viewed from a technology perspective the solution seems simple, especially when using a powerful new approach like nanotechnology. Most of the stuff you want to get out of water is nanoscale (salts, viruses etc.) so if you can create some well controlled pores in a material thin enough then the global water problem is solved, and we can move onto fixing hunger or energy or something else. Or maybe not.

Over a decade I looked at dozens of technologies, and each one was either:

  • Based on exotic materials such as purified single wall nanotubes that would never be economically viable or;
  • Not scalable, it’s easy to create a square centimetre in a lab but what about the square kilometres needed for real world applications – or;
  • Based on materials with questionable toxicity that no one would want near drinking water or;
  • Based on the kind of structure that would clog as soon as it encountered a real-world water sample, transforming a filter into a barrier.

Identifying a possibly viable candidate was the start of the process of proving the technology works, scaling it up, and funding it which I’ll deal with in later posts.

But the important lesson is that the nine hour drive through the frozen wastes of the South East United States in February 2014 with only a bag of teriyaki flavour beef jerky for sustenance was not the start. Defining the problem was, and it had already taken me ten years of work just to get to the starting line by identifying a potential solution. The next challenge was to deliver the solution…

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