Nothing happens until money changes hands is a maxim all researchers and developers need to keep in mind. Turning great ideas into viable business plans is the focus of the National Science Foundation’s small business innovation research (SBIR) program, and a recent beneficiary of the federal government’s largesse is a nanofiltration technology capable of removing microbes, heavy metals and chemical toxins from wastewater and drinking water.

Lisa M. Farmen, president and COO, Crystal Clear Technologies Inc., Portland, OR

Hydrology professor Robert S. Bowman of New Mexico Tech, located in Socorro, MN, did seminal research on surfactant modified zeolites (SMZ) in the 1990s. He demonstrated that inexpensive, effective removal of heavy metals, chlorinated compounds and inorganic oxyanions such as chromate and arsenate could be removed from groundwater by combining finely ground zeolite with an ion-exchange agent such as iron and a surfactant that would attach to the target. When palletized, SMZ has a huge surface area, and the ionically charged surfactants, or ligands, adsorb the contaminants, trapping them. In recent years, Bowman collaborated with Suresh D. Pillai, a biotechnologist at Texas A&M, to apply SMZ to bacterial and viral removal. With multiple SMZ columns, nanofiltered water that was heavily polluted could be rendered potable. To date, the most common application is in air treatment, primarily in cleaning solvent fumes from paint shops.

Two years ago, the scientists’ work came to the attention of Crystal Clear Technologies Inc., a start-up firm that tapped SBIR funding to develop and commercialize inexpensive, portable water purification for the billions of humans worldwide who lack suitable drinking water. With offices in Menlo Park, CA, and Portland, OR, Crystal Clear is focused on acquiring intellectual property rights, refining the technology for commercial use and addressing the legal, financial and business-planning requirements to create an enterprise that can be profitable while achieving its altruistic goals. The firm hopes to break even in 2009 with revenues of $8 million and is in discussions with China Global Water Affairs Group and others on manufacturing and licensing the technology for global use. Heading up the scientific initiative is President Lisa M. Farmen, a chemical engineer with 20 years experience in water treatment. Before joining Crystal Clear, Farmen was senior engineer for Texas Instruments and has helped steer technology projects from development to initial public offering.

A schematic depicts the principles of surfactant modified zeolites using bifunctional ligands to remove arsenic (As), lead (Pb), mercury (Hg) and other contaminants in water. Because the technology, which also is effective in removing microbes and inorganics, is easily recharged, the filtration cost is a fraction of existing filter media. Source: Crystal Clear Technologies Inc.

FE: What development work preceded Crystal Clear’s incorporation in 2005?

Farmen: Other than the SBIR application, nothing. We wrote our proposal in October 2004, saying we intended to remove organics and inorganics from raw water, without power and using nanofiltration, and turn 10 gallons of river water into drinking water for $1. That’s not just a little better or cheaper than existing technology: it’s a huge improvement. We made a statement that was outrageous, extremely bold and, if I didn’t think we could pull it off, arrogant.

We uncovered Dr. Bowman’s SMZ technology on the Internet and in a search of the patent database. I also found a paper by Professor Darren Johnson at the University of Oregon on removing arsenic and lead. We began exploring licensing SMZ from Dr. Bowman and Dr. Pillai. I met with Dr. Johnson, explained our objectives, and he assigned three PhD students to the project. They have created a monofunctional ligand technology that can covalently bond to a substrate and be recharged in line for extended use.

FE: Your marketing materials refer to it as Nano-coated Media Extraction (NMX). How does it differ from the work of professors Bowman and Pillai?

Farmen: It’s our opinion, and I think those inventors’ opinion as well, that a little bit of the coating can come off in solution with SMZ. In the case of viruses and bacteria such as cryptosporidium, that is unacceptable when you’re treating drinking water.

FE: How effective is the filter in removing microbes?

Farmen: SMZ technology is not ready for prime time yet. Zeolites possess a net negative charge, which limits their capacity for adsorbing viruses. However, the surface charge can be reversed by applying hexadecyltrimethylammonium chloride, a long chain cationic surfactant. The surfactant acts as a biocide. Shigella is one of the most vigorous bacterial strains found in water. We incubated one billion Shigella cells in a beaker and bobbed teabags with between 0.25 grams and 1 gram of the filter media. We found that a bag with 1 gram, bobbed a few times and then left in the beaker for five minutes, has enough surface area to deactivate 9 logs of Shigella.

FE: How competitive was the initial $100,000 SBIR grant application?

Farmen: To secure a SBIR grant, you have to show you can make money and have a social impact by developing and commercializing a technology. We competed with 14,000 applicants for a Phase I grant. Of the 80 projects selected, only 20 go on to get a Phase II grant.

I didn’t realize you had to double the claim in your SBIR proposal when the concept is tested. When it was time to send the prototype, we had to demonstrate we could clean 20 gallons of river water for less than $1. We succeeded in June 2005. When we applied for the Phase II grant, we wanted to raise the bar. We proposed a system that would provide a person with 7.15 liters of drinkable water each day for a year for a material cost of $1. That’s almost 700 gallons. We received a $500,000 grant in September, with potentially another $500,000 to help commercialize the technology.

FE: How critical is the global water situation?

Farmen: The average wage in Mexico is $5 a day; in India and Asia, it’s about $1 a day; in Africa, it’s less. Two-thirds of the world’s population will be without a reliable source of drinking water by 2015. If you had to get water for your family and lived in an impoverished region, what are your options? We wanted to demonstrate that you can use raw water, pour it over these nano-coated media and supply drinkable water for a family for awhile for less than $1.

If you took all the available water on planet Earth, excluding the water in glaciers, and put it into a 5-liter container, the ratio of fresh water would be the equivalent of one teaspoon in that container.

FE: Where does the commercialization effort stand?

Farmen: We received $220,000 from the Oregon Nanoscience and Micro Technology Institute for media characterization and international certification. Commercial certification is critical if we are to sell a system for drinking water. Nondisclosure agreements are in place with some of the leading chemical and water-treatment companies in the world, and we’re certifying a small Oregon chemical plant to manufacture designer zeolite media for specific filtration challenges.

Cascade Designs Inc. is a Seattle manufacturer of outdoor equipment such as Platypus, a line of modular hydration systems. We are a subcontractor to Cascade for production of an individual water purification system for the military. Prototypes will be field tested by the Marines and Army later this year. It consists of a 2-liter bladder, a mouthpiece and a tube with the nanofilter embedded. Cascade has a medium to destroy pathogens; our nanofiltration media will remove heavy metals and inorganics.

FE: In food production, do you see potential for treating process water, wastewater, possibly as a supplement to reverse osmosis for bottled water and other beverages?

Farmen: Bottled water is one of my pet peeves. With R/O, tremendous energy and cost is expended, and only half of the water inputted comes out as usable; the rest goes down the drain. Nanofiltration is much more efficient, doesn’t require energy and is just as effective.

Home purification systems are another peeve. Devices that attach to a faucet in your home only pull out chlorine. If you’re evaluating on the basis of taste, that’s the technology for you. But if you want to remove any metals and organic matter, this technology makes more sense. This can even remove perchlorates, the jet-fuel oxidizer that has been in the food chain so long, it’s turning up in breast milk. If I can get a company like Brita to the deal stage, this technology could be in people’s homes in less than a year.