Carnegie Mellon University

A water purification quantum leap for health and environmental protection

Environmental health

Regardless of socio-economic status, people globally will become healthier through access to safer, cheaper technology for removing toxic persistent chemical pollutants and microbes from water.

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Project Summary

Water worldwide is contaminated by chemicals that are developmentally toxic at ultra-low concentrations. The resulting adverse effects present an existential threat to humanity and fish, wildlife, pollinators, other insects, and plants. The signs of these threats are often less recognized, but are becoming more pronounced: already obvious mass sterilization impacting most Western men by 2040, fish and amphibians disappearing from waterways through male feminization, and synthetic chemicals found in waterways, human urine, blood and amniotic fluid at harmful levels. Our team has developed transformational small-molecule catalysts (NewTAMLs) that mimic but vastly outperform nature's enzymes in activating peroxide to kill microbes and destroy toxic contaminants at ultra-low concentrations. Building from previous laboratory/piloting/scaling work, we will bring these affordable purification powers to humanity around an implementation strategy that ensures expanding growth and global fairness. In short, our goal is to make water much safer for all life.

Problem Statement

The mere idea that the tiny amounts of some everyday chemicals that people carry in their blood, breastmilk and urine could be disrupting hormonal signaling and cellular development to injure adults and impair their progeny sounds like the plot of a science fiction horror movie. Yet copious evidence from wildlife, lab animals, in vitro studies, biomonitoring, epidemiology, and human accidents indicate that, with endocrine disrupting chemicals, this is our troubling reality today. Everyone is impacted, Including the developing fetus where early exposure can lead to lifetime health problems. Aquatic life is being decimated. The problem stems from the commercialization of synthetic chemicals before we understood endocrine disruption. There is no panacea because exposure routes abound. But we can help immensely to ward off this existential threat by removing the culprit chemicals from water while the societal understanding and willpower required to escape them deepens. Our team has best illustrated the multidisciplinary interplay between endocrine disruption challenges and solutions by reviewing BPA's blanket environmental contamination and toxicity, while showing our catalyst processes easily and safely eliminate it from water. The culprit chemicals often accumulate in enormous volume waste-waters just before release to the environment: municipal, industrial, agricultural, military, shipping. Many pass right through drinking water treatment plants and into our faucets. Because we can treat tens of thousands of tonnes of water with just one kilogram of catalyst and low peroxide concentrations, these are all ideal leverage points for the biggest impacts begging us to scale our solutions with D-Day determination.

Solution Overview

The removal from water of micropollutants —chemicals that produce adverse effects at low to ultra-low concentrations— is the hardest water purification challenge today; a great solution impacts everyone. Our easy-to-use, comparatively inexpensive solution uses a specialty catalyst (NewTAML) to activate peroxide the same way nature does, only more effectively. Our multidisciplinary team will determine the health of receiving waters before and after our processes, following low concentration toxicity by the transformative protocol we helped to develop to help governments act. We quantify everything: rapid microbial and pollutant disappearances to infinitesimal limits, how fast pollutants decay, their decay products, and which NewTAML is optimal for each task. All along, we balance technical and cost performances. Large reductions in water-borne micropollutants will increase human and animal vitality in every habitat on every continent. We will judge the success of the project on the number of major challenges solved, number of adopters, volumes of treated waters, number of government backings, and observable improvements for wildlife (e.g., providing the missing link for addressing Albertan oil sands tail ponds pollution to prevent bird mortality and protect other wildlife and groundwater). Industrially polluted waters may also contain elemental pollutants, e.g., lead, cadmium, chromium, which cannot be oxidized away, so we will couple our uniquely powerful NewTAML solution with existing approaches for heavy metal and other elemental contamination wherever necessary. Profits generated through this work will feed propulsive scaling to deploy our solutions in poor jurisdictions across the world through "robbing Peter to pay Paul" expansion strategies.

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Project Funders

  • Heinz Endowments 2011 - 2016
  • CMU 2011
  • Lord Foundation/Heinz Family Foundation

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