Viewpoint: Collaboration can help address water pollution

Dec 19, 2022

Dr Robin Knight, co-founder of research facilitator IN-PART, argues that collaboration will be key to addressing fundamental issues in our water systems

by Robin Knight

For the western world, clean water is something we take for granted. But 25 per cent of the world’s population does not have access to safe drinking water. Just recently, UK beaches have seen pollution warnings after water companies discharged untreated sewage and wastewater into the sea. Water pollution causes 1.8 million deaths each year and many more illnesses.

As well as sustaining life, water is key to a whole range of industrial and engineering processes, from chemicals and materials production, to agriculture. Few sectors do not rely on water in their value chain, but these same processes fill water with pollutants. According to UNESCO, over 80 per cent of the world’s wastewater is released into the environment without treatment. 

As such, there is a combined interest from just about every industry in finding innovative ways to monitor and treat wastewater.

IN-PART has a network of 6,000 research-intensive companies covering the spectrum of scientific disciplines, from global biopharma and engineering companies to burgeoning scale-ups. In 2021 and 2022 we ran surveys asking what they perceive as the biggest global challenges we face as a society, and in both years climate change and sustainability came top.

Further conversations - including those with water technology companies like De Nora, Evoqua, Hach and Puraffinity, and companies involved in water R&D 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 huge unmet demand for solutions both in detecting and removing pollutants.

The problems that were raised through our conversations with industry were new and old. Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) – known as forever chemicals, and found in many everyday products – were of concern, as were organic pesticides, heavy metals, and biological pathogens. Many legacy pollutants have yet to be removed from the environment because of insufficient treatment, or because certain pollutants are so persistent that conventional treatment methods cannot effectively remove them.

Microplastics are widely seen as a growing issue, and concern was 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, one consistent theme was the need for rapid, reliable, and repeatable low-cost detection and removal systems. The other was that developing these would require deep expertise in material properties and advanced analytical techniques – expertise of the sort mostly found in academia.

There is huge potential to solve these by getting businesses and academia together. Often the people with the problem do not know how to find it, and people with the expertise do not appreciate its real-world potential. We need to do more to bring people together to create technological solutions to these big global problems.

This was evident from our latest Global Challenge, a campaign which encouraged the global research community to submit water monitoring and treatment solutions. In just six weeks, this surfaced over 100 innovations from academia around the world.

These included a low-cost, reusable sensor that detects 10 different PFAS molecules in a water sample in a single use, from researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology; and a biosensor from Michigan State University that uses magnetic nanoparticles to cling 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 polymeric compounds, capable of selectively trapping five of the most common pesticides; researchers at Imperial College London submitted a regenerable cost-effective sorbent for use in filters to remove arsenic from drinking water.

These and others have attracted considerable interest from companies looking for water treatment and monitoring solutions. Half related to the treatment of water for pollutants, 20 per cent to the treatment of water for natural particulates and pathogens, and 17 per cent to the detection of pollutants in water.

Through this challenge, we have initiated over 100 new conversations between industry and academia. Soon, some of these will develop into collaborations and make their way into industrial processes, making a real impact in the global clean water challenge.

There’s a wealth of cutting-edge research in academia 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 with the power to get it out of the lab. Collaboration between industry and academia has come a long way in the past decade and as our short challenge showed, there is still enormous potential to solve problems by bringing the two worlds together to solve them.

Original publication:

The Engineer,

Dr Robin Knight is a co-founder of IN-PART, a service that matches research pioneers from academia with decision-makers in industry. The full results of the Global Challenge are detailed in a white paper published on the campaign alongside a full list of water treatment innovations.

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