Making clean drinking water more accessible
Following the announcement of this year’s winner of the Eli and Britt Harari Graphene Enterprise Award, we caught up with Sebastian Leaper-last year’s winner,(who won the prize to develop graphene membranes in water filtration systems) to find out what he’s been up to since he won the award.
The last year for me has been a big learning curve from both a science and industry point of view. Some of the initial technical challenges have been overcome with promising results and now more emphasis is being put on long term testing, comparisons with the current state-of-the-art materials and optimisation of the membrane configuration.
I have now registered Graphene Water Technologies LTD and will be heading to the International Desalination Association World Congress in São Paulo to represent the company and learn more about the wider desalination industry. It is important for me to learn the specifics of the water shortage problem that goes beyond the notion of merely reducing the cost of desalination. It is a complex problem, which affects people with widely varying capacities to solve it.
For some it may be a lack of funding or basic infrastructure; for others it may be a lack of available real estate on which to build treatment facilities. By deepening my understanding of the specific problems, I am able to steer my work in the lab towards achieving the best solution.
I am currently using some of the prize money to build a small pilot system which will enable me to test the membranes beyond the lab scale and play around with different configurations. I have also been in contact with scientists from Almeria, Spain who work with solar desalination technology. It may be possible to work with them in future to build up some robust data on the long term suitability of the membranes and how they perform under different operating conditions.
With excellent work being published regularly relating to graphene-based membranes, it is clear that this remains a hot topic in academia. There is also increasing interest from industry relating to this exciting technology and I am very grateful for the opportunity to help bridge the gap with the help of the Eli and Britt Harari Graphene Enterprise award.
Recently, two large storms, Harvey and Irma, hit the US and devastated large areas of housing and contaminated vast quantities of water with dangerous bacteria and heavy metals across Florida and Texas, highlighting the need for portable water filtration systems.
Meanwhile, research from Orb Media has uncovered the presence of plastic microparticles in 83% of drinking water supplies across 5 different continents, including in countries with extensive water treatment infrastructure.
It is important that the general public understand that these issues are directly connected to human activity and the continued use and disposal of fossil fuel products. In addition to seawater desalination, I and others are utilising graphene membranes to purify water with various types of potentially harmful contamination. This issue is more widespread than I knew it to be before starting my research and now I am increasingly motivated to do something about it.
I also recently had the chance to meet Xavier Rolet, the CEO of the London Stock Exchange, who was keen to learn more about the activities of the NGI. It was a great opportunity to learn from someone with such extensive knowledge and experience in the world of business and to be able to share with him some of the work I’ve been doing. It is also a testament to the NGI who are able to engage such figures as Xavier with the graphene project. For this I am very grateful.