This post is one of a series in the #Innovate4Health policy research initiative.
By Gleb Savich
Access to clean water remains a critical issue on a global scale. According to the latest statistics by the World Health Organization (WHO), 844 million people lack a basic drinking water service and at least 2 billion people use contaminated water that can transmit cholera, dysentery, typhoid, polio, and other diseases. Contaminated drinking water causes more than 500,000 deaths each year. And in low- and middle-income countries, more than one-third of the health care facilities lack even soap and water for handwashing.
This drinking water crisis disproportionately affects the poor in the developing world. However, problems with access to safe drinking water may arise in any part of the world due to man-made or natural disasters—including in the United States. One recent example is the public health crisis that erupted in Flint, Michigan, where drinking water became contaminated with lead when the city switched to a different water source.
Natural disasters may disrupt the water supply in areas that normally have access to safe drinking water. As of October 2017, over a month after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, many of its residents still did not have access to clean water, precipitating an outbreak of leptospirosis, a rare bacterial disease.
Climate change, population growth, and urbanization pose further challenges to water supply systems. According to the World Health Organization, by 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas. These varied challenges to one of humanity’s most fundamental problems require flexible and creative solutions.
Dr. Thalappil Pradeep is a professor in the Department of Chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras. His decades of research focusing on nanomaterials has led to several discoveries that have already begun to help solve the global problem of access to clean drinking water.
The first breakthrough came in 2004 when Dr. Pradeep’s team developed nanoparticles that can break down certain pesticides dissolved in water. Many of these chemicals are not removable by standard water filters and have been shown to pose environmental and health risks. Although the use of some of these pesticides is banned, the compounds persist in the environment decades later. The problem is particularly relevant in India, one of the world’s largest pesticide producers, where pesticide water contamination is a serious problem in certain areas.
The pesticide removal technology developed by Dr. Pradeep and his colleagues works by utilizing the ability of gold and silver nanoparticles to bind pesticides from flowing water through adsorption. Dr. Pradeep and his coinventor obtained both Indian and U.S. patents on their technology and licensed it to Eureka Forbes, an Indian manufacturer of vacuum cleaners and water purifiers.
The technology is estimated to have reached 7.5 million people and is the first nanomaterials-based water filter to be commercialized. To further develop nanomaterials-based water filtration technologies, Dr. Pradeep and his team founded a startup, InnoNano Research, in 2004.
Their next breakthrough came in 2012, when the team developed a novel nanomaterial capable of being adapted for the removal of multiple types of water contaminants. The new filter, dubbed AMRIT for Arsenic and Metal Removal by Indian Technology, can remove microbial contamination as well as arsenic, iron, and other heavy metals from drinking water.
The antimicrobial properties of silver ions were well known, but their large-scale implementation for water filtration had been hampered by technological obstacles, such as lack of suitable substrates in which to embed the ions. The novel nanoparticle material developed by Dr. Pradeep and his team solves these issues.
Silver nanoparticles are embedded in this material to remove microbes, while the incorporation of other compounds allows for the removal of other contaminants. For example, the incorporation of iron achieves the removal of both iron and arsenic. Thus, this technology allows for manufacturing of multistage filtration systems suitable for particular needs.
Discussing this filtration system, Dr. Pradeep explains: “If this will be useful for water, it has to be very cheap, have a low carbon footprint, require no electricity, and should not contaminate water sources in the process.” And his team’s technology meets these challenges. According to : Dr. Pradeep, manufacturing requires no heating or electricity and uses materials with a low carbon footprint.
Removal of arsenic from drinking water is of particular interest in India, where ground waters used for drinking and irrigation are often contaminated with dangerous levels of arsenic. To begin addressing this problem, by the summer of 2016, AMRIT filters were installed in 750 locations in several Indian provinces, providing clean water to nearly half a million people.
In 2016, InnoNano Research succeeded in securing one of the largest investments for an Indian tech startup when it obtained $18 million from Nanoholdings LLC, a U.S. venture capital firm specializing in investing into material science-based energy and water startups. This investment is particularly significant in light of the difficulties that Indian startups often face when it comes to scaling up their technologies.
Dr. Pradeep explains: “We have no efficient mechanisms for partnering, scaling and incubating – those are the lacunae in our system.” While universities provide startups with access to labs and research grants, more funding is needed to achieve the scale necessary for further product development.
Leveraging intellectual property enables startups to raise funds necessary to bring their innovations to those who need them. With the help of Nanoholdings LLC, Dr. Pradeep hopes to expand the company’s operations into Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, and to continue developing the technology to filter out other dangerous contaminants found in drinking water.
#Innovate4Health is a joint research project by the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) and the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF). This project highlights how intellectual property-driven innovation can address global health challenges. If you have questions, comments, or a suggestion for a story we should highlight, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact Devlin Hartline at firstname.lastname@example.org.