dr Robin Knight, co-founder of research facilitator IN-PART, argues that collaboration will be key to solving fundamental problems in our water systems
Clean water is a matter of course for the western world. But 25 percent of the world’s population does not have access to clean drinking water. Just recently, UK beaches were warned of pollution after water companies dumped untreated sewage and sewage into the sea. Water pollution causes 1.8 million deaths and many more diseases every year.
Water not only sustains life, but is also key to a whole range of industrial and technical processes, from chemical and material production to agriculture. Few sectors do not rely on water in their value chain, but the same processes fill water with pollutants. According to UNESCO, over 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is released into the environment untreated.
Therefore, there is a common interest from almost all industries to find innovative ways to monitor and treat wastewater.
IN-PART has a network of 6,000 research-intensive companies spanning the entire spectrum of scientific disciplines, from global biopharmaceutical and engineering companies to emerging scale-ups. In 2021 and 2022 we conducted surveys asking what they see as the biggest global challenges we face as a society and in both years climate change and sustainability came first.
Further discussions – including those with water technology companies such as De Nora, Evoqua, Hach and Puraffinity, and companies involved in water research and development such as Suez, Veolia, Southern Water, Beko and AkzoNobel – identified water treatment as a major challenge across all sectors . and one where there is a tremendous unmet need for solutions for both pollutant detection and removal.
The issues raised in our discussions with industry were new and old. Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — known as eternal chemicals and found in many everyday products — have been of concern, as have organic pesticides, heavy metals and biological pathogens. Many contaminated sites have yet to be removed from the environment because they are inadequately treated or because certain pollutants are so persistent that conventional treatment methods cannot effectively remove them.
Microplastics are widely recognized as a growing problem and concern has been raised about nanoparticles, which are increasingly used in chemical and medical products, but little is known about the potential environmental or health impacts.
In all cases, a recurring theme was the need for fast, reliable, and repeatable low-cost detection and removal systems. The other was that their development would require in-depth knowledge of material properties and advanced analytical techniques – expertise found mainly in academia.
There is tremendous potential to solve these problems by bringing business and academia together. Often the people with the problem don’t know how to find it, and the people with the expertise don’t appreciate its real potential. We must do more to bring people together to create technological solutions to these major global problems.
This was evident in our recent Global Challenge, a campaign that encouraged the global research community to submit water monitoring and treatment solutions. In just six weeks, this brought to light over 100 innovations from academia.
These included a low-cost, reusable sensor by researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology that detects 10 different PFAS molecules in a water sample in a single use; and a Michigan State University biosensor that uses magnetic nanoparticles to adhere to and extract pathogens from chemically complex environmental samples.
On the removal side, we saw a smart filter from the University of Lincoln, based on polymer compounds, capable of selectively capturing five of the most common pesticides; Researchers from Imperial College London submitted a regenerable, low-cost sorbent for use in filters to remove arsenic from drinking water.
These and others have generated great interest from companies looking for water treatment and monitoring solutions. Half related to treating water for pollutants, 20 percent related to treating water for natural particles and pathogens, and 17 percent related to detecting pollutants in water.
Through this challenge, we have initiated over 100 new conversations between industry and academia. Some of these will soon evolve into collaborations and find their way into industrial processes to make a real impact on the global clean water challenge.
There is an abundance of cutting-edge research in science that has the power to help solve this and other complex global problems. But it doesn’t always make it into the hands of people in industry who have the power to get it out of the lab. Collaboration between industry and academia has come a long way in the last decade, and as our brief challenge showed, there is still tremendous potential to solve problems by bringing the two worlds together to solve them.
dr Robin Knight is co-founder of PARTIALLY, a service that brings together research pioneers from academia with decision-makers from industry. The full results of the Global Challenge are set out in a white paper being released to accompany the campaign, along with a full list of water treatment innovations.