New York (UPI) Mar 18, 2005
One of the single biggest applications of nanotechnology could be solving the global shortage of pure water, experts told UPI's Nano World.
"It's the new oil of the 21st century," said F. Mark Modzelewski, managing director of nanotechnology analyst firm Lux Research in New York.
Fresh water is one of the largest industries in the world, behind only oil and electricity. Some 70 percent of the water market goes to agriculture and 15 percent to industry, Modzelewski said.
"The current size of the global water market is $287 billion right now, and expected to be $413 billion by 2010," he added.
"It takes an incredible 105,000 gallons of water to make a single automobile and extraordinary amounts are used for making everything from clothing to semiconductors."
More than 97 percent of the water in the world is saltwater, and of the remaining freshwater supply, only about a third is usable, with the rest locked up as ice, Modzelewski said. At the same time, the world population is expected to double in 40 years.
"Over half the world population will face a very serious water shortage in the next 30 to 50 years, and we need to be prepared for that," said Zvi Yaniv, president and chief executive officer of Applied Nanotech in Austin, Texas. "Water will be one of the biggest applications of nanotechnology in the near term."
Even in the United States, water is going to cause real problems, Modzelewski predicted.
"Industry analysts say demand for fresh water is expected to grow 70 percent over the next 25 years. You look at the Ogallala aquifer, the main aquifer for Colorado and Texas, and all the agriculture that it goes to, and it's getting saltier and saltier all the time, with some estimates that it's not going to last 30 years without requiring desalinization.
"That's almost the entire U.S. ranching industry and a lot of U.S. agriculture sitting right there."
Nanotechnology could lead to advanced water-filtering membranes "that can purify even the worst of wastewater," Modzelewski added, noting that KX Industries in Orange, Conn., has developed an anti-bacterial and anti-viral filter "that you can pure raw sewage into, and come out with clear water on the other end."
The key lies in how nanotechnology - science and engineering on the scale of molecules - can make pores tiny enough to filter out the smallest of organism.
"You can have new polymer materials that can self-assemble into artificial membranes and be cheaper, more effective," Yaniv said.
At the same time, nano-engineered membrane pores can be far straighter than conventional filters using natural ingredients such as zeolite, where the pores are very crooked. This means water actually can flow through faster.
"In areas like the Middle East and Africa, we need to solve and cut the costs of desalinization and purification," Yaniv explained. "Today we're using pressurization, and pressurization costs a lot of money. So the shortcoming of conventional membranes can be flow."
The materials used in the membranes also can help filter out contaminants. Argonide, in Sanford, Fla., makes alumina nanofiber filters whose positive charge attracts out negatively charged germs.
Another company, eMembrane, in Providence, R.I., is developing nanoscale polymer brushes coated with molecules to capture and remove poisonous metals, proteins and germs, Modzelewski added.
Nanotech water-purification technologies include photocatalytic materials, where water passing through a nanomaterial is also subjected to ultraviolet light, leading to the destruction of contaminants such as pesticides, industrial solvents and germs.
Yaniv noted his company is working with an as-yet-undisclosed partner in Japan to make nano-columns of titanium oxide "that are very potent as photocatalysts, since they have a much larger surface area. The efficiency of the effect is phenomenal," he said.
Still, of all novel filtration technologies, driving the cost of desalinization down promises to be among the most valuable potential achievement of nanotech.
"You see Israel, New Zealand and Singapore working on desalinization, mostly using nanoscale membranous materials," Modzelewski said. "Shimon Peres is one of the biggest cheerleaders in the world in talking about nanotech for desalinization."
Yaniv said there is no doubt, "as we need more and more water, the price of desalinization must be cut, and it will happen very soon, probably in the next five years."
Nanosensors that monitor water for drinking quality could be a huge application as well.
"One sensor technology from our company is to coat carbon nanotubes with enzymes that react with analytes," Yaniv said.
"The carbon nanotubes allow a large surface area of interaction to achieve fantastic sensitivity. They could be very, very potent for cleaning water.
You can have a family of sensors - low cost - embedded in water at the central station, so if you know pollution occurs, you can immediately solve the problem instead of waiting until it's a serious problem."
There will be a tremendous synergy between obtaining cheap energy and obtaining clean water as well, Yaniv noted, "as the largest cost in water treatment is energy.
There nanotechnologies can help, too, by making very cheap, efficient solar cells. So you can see a combination of both kinds of functions - energy and water - in the same materials.
Any companies looking to develop nanotechnologies for water have to consider the existing business landscape of the market, Modzelewski cautioned.
"It is a real consolidated industry, with a few real big players (so) it is hard to get into the game," he explained.
In addition to the world's two largest waterworks, Suez and Vivendi, "(General Electric) is wrapping up a lot of water technologies, using nanofiltration membranes as well to pull out different bacteria from water. GE is the biggest supplier of water equipment for utilities, both public and private, and can circumvent a lot of young innovative inventors."
It is difficult to be a stand-alone nanotech water company, Modzelewski said. "A strategy in nanotechnology and water will certainly be to do a lot of licensing. You'll probably have to have a big company that delivers infrastructure, probably with small companies that develop an interesting technology that gets bought out by GE or Suez or Vivendi."
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