UH researcher introduces breakthrough technology for arsenic-free drinking water

Economical filtration invention could save millions of lives around the world

University of Hawaiʻi
Liangjie Dong, (808) 956-8806
Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering
Arlene Abiang, (808) 956-5637
External Affairs & University Relations
Posted: Mar 6, 2006

HONOLULU — University of Hawaiʻi researcher Liangjie Dong, a molecular biosciences and bioengineering (MBBE) doctoral student in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, has developed an economical and efficient technology that could potentially solve arsenic poisoning problems in drinking water. Dong‘s technology, called MicroNose™, showed initial results that removed 99.9 percent of arsenic from drinking water. Compared to current filter products available on the market, the invention could provide a cost savings of 60 percent to the end user.

Arsenic, a highly poisonous metallic element that is found in rocks, soils and waters, affects more than 100 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO is urgently seeking robust, affordable technologies to handle arsenic removal from drinking water, especially where poisoning is prevalent in countries like Bangladesh, India, Argentina and China, including Taiwan. WHO estimates that arsenic in drinking water will cause 200,000 to 270,000 deaths from cancer in Bangladesh alone. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that 13 million people in more than 20 states are affected by arsenic contaminated drinking water. Medical problems linked to arsenic ingestion include skin cancer and bladder cancer, among other illnesses.

Dong discovered his MicroNose™ invention after spending nearly a year experimenting with 32 other approaches. He finally discovered a simple mixture consisting of clay, iron and other common ingredients. When properly combined and treated, these materials produce absorbent and permeable pottery granules which function similar to the mucous membrane in the human nose. Pictures produced by a scanning electron microscope clearly showed more than a thousand "tiny noses" were created in a 1 millimeter MicroNose™ granule.

"Each MicroNose™ granule contains thousands of tiny holes and acts like a filter, just as our nose can trap large unwanted particles like dirt or pollen," explained Dong. "Not only that, but the granules are also capable of capturing arsenic and other heavy metals from drinking water. The MicroNose™ formula is very precise, but can be easily mass produced."

MicroNose™ has proven so efficient that when Dong tested filtration with 300 ppb (part per billion) of arsenic contaminated groundwater, the sample results showed less than 1 ppb of arsenic remained after only 15 minutes.

A conventional filtration process for arsenic removal from H2O requires a five-step method that is time-consuming and costly. In comparison, MicroNose™ requires only a one-step method that is based on physical absorption, contains no chemical makeup process and requires no pH adjustment or aeration period. These characteristics do not disturb other water qualities when arsenic is removed.

The MicroNose technology also satisfies five critical factors for arsenic water treatment set forth by the National Academy of Engineering. The technology—
· is highly effective for removal of Arsenic (III) and (V) as well as other heavy metals;
· produces waste that can be safely and easily disposed;
· consists of materials that are inexpensive and is easy to mass produce;
· preserves good water qualities;
· and does not utilize materials that cause social concern.

Other poisonous elements that MicroNose™ has effectively removed from groundwater include: lead, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc and manganese. When toxic water containing a mixture of these heavy metals was tested, the results showed that the MicroNose™ media effectively removed the elements at the same time. "Given these results, MicroNose™ has a great potential for purifying industrial wastewater as well," said Dong.

Dong‘s MicroNose™ and Arsenic Solution research team include Dr. Walt Atkins, founder and CEO of Pacific HiTech Development, LLC, and fellow UH Mānoa researchers Dr. James Cowen, oceanographer; Dr. Li-Chung Ming, geophysicist; Dr. P.S. Leung, economist; Dr. Pavel Zinin, materials scientist; and collaborators Dr. Chittaranjan Ray, water quality engineer; and Dr. Kate Zhou, social scientist. Students from the College of Business at UH Mānoa are also assisting with manufacturing and commercializing the product. Three engineers and mechanists are helping the team construct and assemble equipment for mass production.

A patent application for MicroNose™ technology has been filed by the UH Office of Technology Transfer and Economic Development and the team is in the process of applying for various grants and awards to further develop and market the product. Dong and his team members are competing for a $1 million award for the National Academy of Engineering‘s Grainger Challenge to develop a sustainable arsenic filtration solution for Bangledesh. Dong is also part of a UH team that will compete in the 17th International Graduate Students Venture Challenge Business Plan competition on March 23, 2006, in San Diego.

Dong shared, "It is important to note that although the arsenic problem is not as severe in the US as it is in some countries, the EPA has recently imposed a new federal regulation on Jan. 23 in which acceptable arsenic drinking levels were dropped from 50 ppb to 10 ppb. Many communities are now urgently seeking an affordable solution to meet the new regulation requirement.

"My team and I are confident that MicroNose™ will be a cost-effective solution to provide arsenic-free drinking water, while also addressing the health, scientific, social, environmental and economic challenges associated with it."

The College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR), established in 1907 as the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, is the founding college of the University of Hawaiʻi. The college is an integral part of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa‘s Carnegie I Research Institution designation and is the Land Grant college of the University of Hawaiʻi system. CTAHR is federally mandated to fulfill the University‘s threefold Land Grant mission of instruction, scientific research, and outreach to address State needs. No other college in the University of Hawaiʻi has such an extensive mandate or interacts so closely with the citizens of the State. The Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering is one of six departments in the college. For more information, visit www.ctahr.hawaii.edu.