Clean water is a global problem. It is one of the most important issues facing the global community because it is critical to public health, agricultural and energy production.  By 2025, clean water will be in severe shortage in places such as Africa, China, the Middle East, and India.  That may be why a new technology jointly disclosed by researchers at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and Sandia National Labs (SNL) has received the prestigious R&D; 100 Awards for the year's 100 top high-technology inventions in applied technologies.

The joint invention competed against an international pool of technologies developed by industry, academia, private research firms and government labs. Winners were selected by the editors of R&D; Magazine and an independent panel of judges. Called the "Oscars of Invention," the prestigious award often gives inventors the impetus they need to launch their emerging technologies into the marketplace.

The co-inventors for the technology "Biomimetic Membranes for Water Desalination"are Susan Rempe, David Rogers, and S. Leung from SNL; Jeffrey Brinker, who hold a joint appointment at SNL and UNM as Fellow and Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemical & Nuclear Engineering, respectively, Ying-Bing Jiang, senior research scientist in the UNM Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences and Shaorong Yang,  post-doctoral researcher in the UNM Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences.

Using biomechanisms patterned after a living cell membrane, the inventors have engineered a solution to better water desalination technology by creating a novel nanoporous synthetic material that is an improvement over reverse osmosis (RO) membranes. The new membrane is called biomimetic because it "mimics" nature.

Traditional polymeric RO membranes are expensive because they require such high pressures to drive the salty water through the filtration membrane.  The challenge for the next generation of membranes is how to increase efficiency by designing materials that move water more quickly while maintaining a high level of salt and other mineral removal.   Inspired by the molecular design principles of a living cell membrane whose protein channels provide a very efficient natural filtration system, the inventors have engineered nanochannels for desalination.

The technology uses an atomic layer deposition (ADL) process, a thin film deposition technique on the atomic scale that sequentially applies layers of chemicals to the surface of a substrate to produce a thin film.

The nanoporous material has twice the efficiency of an RO membrane because it has high salt rejection and improved water flux (the rate at which water permeates a membrane), even at pressures as low as 80 psi (pound per square inch). This breakthrough in material design means that it is possible to produce ultra-low pressure nano-filtration and RO water purification membranes that are highly efficient, representing a significant savings in energy costs.

The potential markets for the new membrane include agriculture, chemicals, medical devices, mining, storage battery and water supply and sewage treatment industry sectors.

The 49th Annual R&D; Awards will be presented by R&D; Magazine to recipients at an awards banquet to be held on Oct. 13 in Orlando, Fla.

Story by Denise Bissell

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