U.S., Israel Collaborative Effort Targets Most Promising Areas For Water Treatment Using Nanotechnologies

Water researchers from leading institutions in Israel and the United States announced on July 10 they have targeted four "cutting-edge" projects for collaborative research between the two countries.

Their selection is one outcome of a bi-national workshop held in Washington, D.C., in mid-March, organized by the U.S. and Israeli national nanotechnology initiatives, and the Center of Advanced Materials for Purification of Water with Systems (WaterCAMPWS) at the University of Illinois.

Professor Rafi Semiat, director of the Grand Water Research Institute at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and a workshop organizer, said that while the group will promote all 12 nanotech-based projects that were outlined at the workshop, special focus is being given to four projects that can provide extraordinary benefits for water purification, and that have the potential to be applied commercially within the next five years.

"Both countries see the target projects not only as very exciting, potential breakthroughs, but also as applied research that can get funded and get commercialized quickly," Semiat said.

The target projects focus on distinct nanotechnology-based solutions that were outlined at the bi-national workshop: membranes and membrane processes, biofouling and disinfection, contaminants removal, and environmental monitoring and sensors.

The four targeted projects are:

  • Development of new, porous polymer-based ultra-filtration membranes with special coatings that exhibit higher flux and higher resistance to contamination, as well as robust molecular sieving abilities. The project will create and test self-assembling membranes with very stable transport channels that reduce biofouling and may also be capable of self-cleaning.
  • Development of coatings with antimicrobial capabilities that can minimize biological attachment and biofilm formation that can be applied to current generation membranes that are used for drinking water, wastewater and desalination.
  • Study of mixed metal oxide nanostructured materials for the destruction of biological toxins in surface water and groundwater, using photocatalysis and oxidation. The project will provide data for optimizing the use of these materials in various environments.
  • Development of whole-cell microbial biosensors to detect minute metabolite excretions from newly-forming biofilms. The project will examine the mechanisms of biological attachment to surfaces, identify its biochemical signals, and develop nanoscale sensors that can be applied to membrane surfaces, enabling optimized maintenance for water purification membranes and significant extension of membrane lifetimes.

Rich Sustich, industrial and governmental development manager for the WaterCAMPWS and a workshop organizer, said that there is special excitement over the proposed biosensor project, which may result in new tools and methods for water systems operation and reduction of long-term maintenance costs.

"Today's water infrastructure is run on a one-size-fits-all concept." Sustich noted. "Systems are assembled from standard components, and maintenance relies more on manufacturer's recommendations than on a direct understanding of what's really happening during treatment. This works, but it's very wasteful."

Adding biosensing devices throughout the water treatment system will provide direct awareness and interaction with the system in real time. The proposed biosensors can eventually lead beyond passive sensing to the development of "smart" membranes that react biologically to changes in the system's environment, and perhaps even prevent biofilm and toxics formation without the need for manual intervention, according to researchers.

Workshop participants agreed that such biosensing mechanisms could be applied within 5 to 10 years, given the needed development resources.

Workshop sponsors are seeking approximately $600,000 to support costs of binational collaboration on all 12 projects, with funding to be matched equally between Israeli and U.S. sources. Additional workshops are also planned.

For additional information, contact the Israel National Nanotechnology Initiative at http://www.nanoisrael.org.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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