Globally, 844 million people lack access to clean water, and by 2030, demand for water is expected to exceed current supply by 40%. Recycling and reusing industrial wastewater, which is used for power and manufacturing, can protect water resources from pollution, and prevent industry from draining precious fresh water. The problem: the current process is archaic and costly.
Another issue is batteries. Car manufacturers are hoping to phase out lithium-ion batteries in exchange for fuel cells by 2030. They want to move toward a clean energy solution because they produce energy without emissions. However, this transition is being slowed down by membranes that are too costly and ineffective.
Last, the pharmaceutical industry uses filtration for purification, and the removal of debris or other contaminants within the system. To accommodate the needs of this industry, filtration must accommodate numerous variants in the size of the particles it’s filtering.
Greg Newbloom, PhD, and UW Chemical Engineering professor Lilo Pozzo were brainstorming a solution for lowering the cost and improving the efficiency of batteries. Since batteries work by moving ions, which are simply a charged element with water attached, they explored around materials that have tiny pores which would move ions and nothing else. The “a-ha” moment came when thinking about something you see every day: the little silica gel packets you find at the bottom of a beef jerky package, which absorb moisture. They wondered if it was possible to make a membrane using this same material, but instead of the familiar bead form, mold it into a sheet and use this to transport ions. Thus, the conceptual genesis of Membrion was born.
Greg and his team created Membrion’s membranes that are made from silica gel which are flexible and low-cost—about 10x less. They can be engineered for many use cases, unlike nano-porous ceramic (and polymer) membranes. which are brittle and expensive and thus used only in niche markets.
These low-cost and high-performance molecular filters can contribute to solving some of the world’s most challenging problems: access to clean water, global electrification, and human health. However, while their membranes are great for flow batteries, they are a nascent technology in an emerging market where new product adoption cycles take 2-4 years. The water industry, by contrast, is massive and well-established and, due to harsh conditions, the membranes they use often don’t last more than 3-4 years. In contrast, Membrion membranes last because they’re made of ceramic/silica gel. This learning motivated them to pivot from flow batteries to the water industry
In this video, Greg speaks with CoMotion Director and UW VP for Innovation, François Baneyx, about the commercialization journey he and his team have been on – the pivots, the strategies, the challenges and successes.
lower cost than today’s membrane filtering processes
less energy used than current solutions
CO2/year displaced, reducing greenhouse gases