Israeli, US water researchers to collaborate on four nanotech projects

This view of nanotube water shows its strong and weak bonds. Water researchers from leading Israeli and American institutions have targeted four cutting-edge projects for collaborative research between the two countries.Their selection is one outcome of a bi-national workshop held …

This view of nanotube water shows its strong and weak bonds. Water researchers from leading Israeli and American institutions have targeted four cutting-edge projects for collaborative research between the two countries.

Their selection is one outcome of a bi-national workshop held in Washington DC in mid-March, organized by the US and Israeli national nanotechnology initiatives, and the Center of Advanced Materials for Purification of Water with Systems (WaterCAMPWS) at the University of Illinois.

According to Prof. Rafi Semiat, director of the Grand Water Research Institute at the Technion Institute of Technology and a workshop organizer, while the group will promote all 12 nanotech-based projects that were outlined at the workshop, special focus is being given to four projects that can provide extraordinary benefits for water purification, and that have the potential to be applied commercially within the next five years.

“Both countries see the target projects not only as very exciting, potential breakthroughs, but also as applied research that can get funded and get commercialized quickly,” Semiat said.

The target projects focus on distinct nanotechnology-based solutions that were outlined at the bi-national workshop: membranes and membrane processes, biofouling and disinfection, contaminants removal, and environmental monitoring and sensors.
The four targeted projects are:

** Development of new, porous polymer-based ultra-filtration membranes with special coatings, that exhibit higher flux and higher resistance to contamination as well as robust molecular sieving abilities. The project will create and test self-assembling membranes with very stable transport channels that reduce bio-fouling and may also be capable of self-cleaning.

** Development of coatings with antimicrobial capabilities that can minimize biological attachment and biofilm formation that can be applied to current generation membranes that are used for drinking water, wastewater and desalination.

** Study of mixed metal oxide nanostructured materials for the destruction of biological toxins in surface water and groundwater, using photocatalysis and oxidation. The project will provide data for optimizing the use of these materials in various environments.

** Development of whole-cell microbial biosensors to detect minute metabolite excretions from newly-forming biofilms. The project will examine the mechanisms of biological attachment to surfaces, identify its biochemical signals, and develop nanoscale sensors that can be applied to membrane surfaces, enabling optimized maintenance for water purification membranes and significant extension of membrane lifetimes.

Rich Sustich, Industrial and Governmental Development Manager for the WaterCAMPWS and a workshop organizer, said that there is special excitement over the proposed biosensor project, which may result in new tools and methods for water systems operation and reduction of long-term maintenance costs.

“Today’s water infrastructure is run on a one-size-fits-all concept.” Sustich noted. “Systems are assembled from standard components, and maintenance relies more on manufacturer’s recommendations than on a direct understanding of what’s really happening during treatment. This works, but it’s very wasteful.”

Adding biosensing devices throughout the water treatment system will provide direct awareness and interaction with the system in real time. The proposed biosensors can eventually lead beyond passive sensing to the development of ‘smart’ membranes that react biologically to changes in the system?s environment, and perhaps even prevent biofilm and toxics formation without the need for manual intervention.

These treatment concepts mimic those already used successfully in medicine: developing biological-based sensors that can distinguish between healthy and unhealthy cells and enable drug delivery only to the unhealthy cells.
Workshop participants agreed that such biosensing mechanisms could be applied within 5 to 10 years, given the needed development resources.

All of the March workshop’s target projects use nanotechnology to move water treatment from today’s broad ‘shotgun’ approach to more focused and discrete treatments.

“We’re developing water systems that are capable of identifying and addressing contaminants at the molecular level,” Sustich said. “The things that are not toxic and don’t need to be removed won’t be removed. Smart systems that remove only the harmful contaminants will be much more efficient and sustainable.”

Water purification is among the most challenging health, social and technological issues facing the world today. Israel and the US, acknowledged leaders in water treatment and water systems management, are seeking to find collaborative ways to use evolving nanotechnology research as platforms for new water treatment solutions, and to help reduce the costs of maintaining water and wastewater infrastructures.

This first joint workshop hosted nearly 50 participants, among them 20 leading water researchers (equally representing Israel and the US) from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sandia National Laboratories, Technion Israel Institute, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), Yale University, and other institutions.

Among the attendees at the workshop were Dr. Mike Roco, Senior Advisor for Nanotechnology at the NSF, Dr. Celia Merzbacher, Assistant Director for Technology at the US Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Rafi Harpaz, Minister Counselor of Public Affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC.

Among the supporters of the conference was the Israel National Nanotechnology Initiative (INNI, a shared initiative of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and Israel’s Ministry of Trade and Industry. A key task of the INNI is to promote fruitful collaboration between Israeli and global nanotechnology stakeholders, with a primary goal focusing on nanotechnologies for use in water purification.