Innovation Journeys: Stories of Invention & Discovery at UW

Membrion

Innovative Solutions for Clean Water, Abundant Power

The issue

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.

The spark

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.

“We thought about how silica gel packets absorb moisture, because they have really small pores, and thought: could we make a membrane out of this same material? It turned out that we could, and that was the genesis of Membrion.”

- Greg Newbloom, PhD

The answer

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.

How it works

The little glass beads in silica gel packets are great at absorbing moisture because they have tiny pores—just a few atoms wide. This environmentally friendly material is used to create high performance exchange membranes that “move what you want and stop what you don’t.”

The learnings

These low cost and high-performance molecular filters can contribute to solving some of the world’s most challenging problems: 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

The UW & CoMotion Boost

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.

CoMotion resources supporting Membrion

“Membrion wouldn’t exist if the Commercialization Fellows Program (CFP) funding didn’t arrive when it did. The CFP allowed me to make sure that our lab development efforts would translate to a technology actually needed by real customers.”

- Greg Newbloom

The impact

Membrion’s membranes are cheaper and can displace billions of tons of CO2, offsetting industry’s effects on global warming.

Their innovation results in:

85%

lower cost than today’s membrane filtering processes

90%

less energy used than current solutions

1B tons

CO2/year displaced, reducing greenhouse gases