North American and Israeli nanotech researchers set sights on clean water

The Nanotechnology Clean Water Initiative is dedicated “to the deployment of nanotechnology to solve water stress problems and to provide development of novel technologies that address water stress.”Israel’s nanotechnology program got a significant boost recently, with the first meeting of …

The Nanotechnology Clean Water Initiative is dedicated “to the deployment of nanotechnology to solve water stress problems and to provide development of novel technologies that address water stress.”Israel’s nanotechnology program got a significant boost recently, with the first meeting of stakeholders in the Nanotechnology Clean Water Initiative. The Initiative – the result of combined efforts by Dr. Uri Sagman, Prof. Samuel Pohoryles and former prime minister Shimon Peres – has, for the first time, brought together major Israeli university researchers and global industry principals to work on nanotech-based solutions to the water shortage in the Middle East.

The one-day forum took place at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, and included researchers from Weizmann, the Technion, Bar-Ilan University, Ben-Gurion University and the Hebrew University, executives from Luna Innovations of Virginia, from the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance and European consulting firm Cientifica, as well as from the Andreas Agricultural Development Trust, an arm of the Peres Center for Peace.

From all reports, the Forum was a success, igniting practical interest among all its participants, and moving one step closer to Peres’ vision of Israel as a world leader in nanoscience-based clean water technologies.

“Our primary objective now is to develop the roadmap,” Sagman reported in a telephone conversation this month from his home in Canada. “Part of that process is meeting with all the individual groups in a determined way to develop a plan, support, funding and interaction with industry.”

Sagman has spearheaded the project, whose stated intention is to dedicate experts and resources “to the deployment of nanotechnology to solve water stress problems and to provide development of novel technologies that address water stress.”

A noted physician, scientist and entrepreneur, Sagman is Executive Director of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance and is also President and co-founder of CSixty, a company that is pioneering the development of organic fullerenes for use in biopharmaceutical applications.

Sagman announced formation of the Nanotechnology Clean Water Initiative in November, during an appearance at the World Nano-Economic Congress in London.

Pohoryles, Director of the Andreas Agricultural Development Trust and a key project organizer, was also encouraged by the inaugural meeting and the progress made so far. “We’ve created an inter-university framework with an emphasis on each university’s specialization in nanotechnology,” Pohoryles reports.

It is hoped that the Water Initiative will result in practical new knowledge that can reduce the cost of water desalination and purification. To begin, the current participants have focused on research projects that can improve existing processes (for example, conventional reverse osmosis), but also intend to strike out in search of new processes.

The preliminary plan, used as the basis for discussion at the inaugural forum, proposes a joint research program comprised of five separate tracks and 17 projects, conducted by some 20 researchers Israeli institutions. The initial cost for the program was set at just over US $5 million for its first three years.

In particular, the participants envision nanotechnology as a powerful toolset that will enable creation of:

** nanoscale filtration membranes to allow increased recovery in existing systems;

** environmentally-friendly, in situ methods for reduction of groundwater pollution by organic as well as inorganic elements;

** nanosized materials to improve the efficiency of photocatalytic and chemical processes underlying solar energy production, resulting in higher heat and pressure yields; and

** nano-biosensor development, enabling faster and more complete reporting on contaminants.

Another critical objective of the Initiative, according to Pohoryles, is to dramatically increase Israel’s available research capacity. Pohoryles believes that expanding the number of Israeli researchers devoted to water research will spawn solutions for generations to come.

The Initiative is also creating an opportunity to build, potentially, the largest joint research project ever undertaken in Israel. With participation of all major research institutions already in hand, organizers now need to fashion suitable methods for managing and applying the outpouring knowledge that will result.

One participant in the Initiative notes that the meeting has already generated follow-up activity among the Israeli institutions that would not have occurred otherwise.

“Water research is a very good thing to coalesce around,” he says. Among other benefits of a concerted research effort, he adds, are the broader relationships that result with industry, as well as incidental spin-off projects. “Look at what happened with Velcro, which was really just a small bi-product of the US space program.”

Certainly the commercial potential is one reason why Luna Innovations, Inc. – an innovative, multi-disciplinary industrial R&D house located in Virginia – has already joined the Initiative as an industrial partner. Luna brought four of its top scientists to Weizmann for the initial meeting, all of them involved in nanotechnology. According to Pohoryles and others, Luna will have first rights to commercialize any findings or applications resulting from the Initiative.

Both Pohoryles and Sagman acknowledge that other industrial sponsors are expressing interest in the Initiative, along with private funding organizations.

But all parties, organizers and research participants alike, exercise great caution when talking about the future of the Nanotechnology Clean Water Initiative. Though optimism certainly prevails, Sagman is advocating a quiet approach. “We want to make sure that we have a consensus before going forward,” he says.

(Reprinted with permission from
Nanotech Advantage Israel, a newsletter published by the Small Advantage consultancy to promote nanotechnology as a key industry enabler in Israel.)