Engineers are plugging holes in drinking water treatment | Access to clean water still isn’t universal

New tech solutions

These three new water-cleaning approaches wouldn’t require costly infrastructure overhauls.

Ferrate to cover many bases

Reckhow’s team at UMass Amherst is testing ferrate, an ion of iron, as a replacement for several water treatment steps. First, ferrate kills bacteria in the water. Next, it breaks down carbon-based chemical contaminants into smaller, less harmful molecules. Finally, it makes ions like manganese less soluble in water so they are easier to filter out, Reckhow and colleagues reported in 2016 in Journal–American Water Association. With its multifaceted effects, ferrate could potentially streamline the drinking water treatment process or reduce the use of chemicals, such as chlorine, that can yield dangerous by-products, says Joseph Goodwill, an environmental engineer at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.

Ferrate could be a useful disinfectant for smaller drinking water systems that don’t have the infrastructure, expertise or money to implement something like ozone treatment, an approach that uses ozone gas to break down contaminants, Reckhow says.

Early next year, in the maiden voyage of his mobile water treatment lab, Reckhow plans to test the ferrate approach in the small Massachusetts town of Gloucester.

In the 36-foot trailer is a squeaky-clean array of plastic pipes and holding tanks. The setup routes incoming water through the same series of steps — purifying, filtering and disinfecting — that one would find in a standard drinking water treatment plant. With two sets of everything, scientists can run side-by-side experiments, comparing a new technology’s performance against the standard approach. That way researchers can see whether a new technology works better than existing options, says Patrick Wittbold, the UMass Amherst research engineer who headed up the trailer’s design.

NICE WHEELS Patrick Wittbold, UMass Amherst quality assurance manager, helped design the Mobile Water Innovation Laboratory (left), a trailer that will test new drinking water technologies around Massachusetts. Inside the van is a flexible setup of filters, pipes and chemicals (right).

NICE WHEELS Patrick Wittbold, UMass Amherst quality assurance manager, helped design the Mobile Water Innovation Laboratory (left), a trailer that will test new drinking water technologies around Massachusetts. Inside the van is a flexible setup of filters, pipes and chemicals (right).

Charged membranes

Filtering membranes tend to get clogged with small particles. “That’s been the Achilles’ heel of membrane treatment,” says Brian Chaplin, an engineer at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Unclogging the filter wastes energy and increases costs. Electricity might solve that problem and offer some side benefits, Chaplin suggests.

His team tested an electrochemical membrane made of titanium oxide or titanium dioxide that both filters water and acts as an electrode. Chemical reactions happening on the electrically charged membranes can turn nitrates into nitrogen gas or split water molecules, generating reactive ions that can oxidize contaminants in the water. The reactions also prevent particles from sticking to the membrane. Large carbon-based molecules like benzene become smaller and less harmful.

In lab tests, the membranes effectively filtered and destroyed contaminants, Chaplin says. In one test, a membrane transformed 67 percent of the nitrates in a solution into other molecules. The finished water was below the EPA’s regulatory nitrate limit of 10 parts per million, he and colleagues reported in July in Environmental Science and Technology. Chaplin expects to move the membrane into pilot tests within the next two years.

Obliterate the PFAS

The industrial chemicals known as PFAS present two challenges. Only the larger ones are effectively removed by granular activated carbon, the active material in many household water filters. The smaller PFAS remain in the water, says Christopher Higgins, an environmental engineer at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. Plus, filtering isn’t enough because the chunky chemicals are hard to break down for safe disposal.

Higgins and colleague Timothy Strathmann, also at the Colorado School of Mines, are working on a process to destroy PFAS. First, a specialized filter with tiny holes grabs the molecules out of the water. Then, sulfite is added to the concentrated mixture of contaminants. When hit with ultraviolet light, the sulfite generates reactive electrons that break down the tough carbon-fluorine bonds in the PFAS molecules. Within 30 minutes, the combination of UV radiation and sulfites almost completely destroyed one type of PFAS, other researchers reported in 2016 in Environmental Science and Technology.

Soon, Higgins and Strathmann will test the process at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, one of nearly 200 U.S. sites known to have groundwater contaminated by PFAS. Cleaning up those sites would remove the pollutants from groundwater that may also feed wells or city water systems.

Filter and destroy

An electrochemical membrane filters out contaminants like a traditional membrane. As a bonus, it also breaks down contaminants via chemical reactions on the membrane’s surface.

water membrane

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