News | September 25, 2019

Chemical Engineering Researchers Earn NSF Small Business Grant

A chemical engineering faculty member and graduate student have received a $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research program to design a new wastewater treatment platform.

Lauren Greenlee, associate professor of chemical engineering and Ralph E. Martin Leadership Chair in Engineering, is the chief technical officer of CatalyzeH2O. Chemical engineering alumnus Mojtaba Abolhassani is the lead scientist on the project, which incorporates technology from his Ph.D. dissertation.

The company's CEO is Shelby Foster, a University of Arkansas M.B.A. student with a background in petroleum and chemical engineering. Foster is also the principal investigator on the grant and led the proposal effort.

The team's plan is to design a reusable nanofiltration membrane platform to clean wastewater more efficiently. Water purification and reuse are expensive, energy-intensive endeavors for local governments and industrial users.  

"Fouling is one of the largest market pains associated with the membrane industry, because fouling leads to an increase in operational costs by 50-100% in many cases," Foster said. "CatalyzeH2O is working to develop an antimicrobial membrane to decrease fouling and lessen the need for extensive preventative fouling maintenance."

CatalyzeH2O's solution focuses on using a nanofiltration membrane with a unique surface chemistry that makes the membrane last longer than the current industry standard.

"One of the key advantages is the surface of the membrane is antimicrobial, so there's less biological and organic fouling," Greenlee said. "That's because of the inherent properties of the membrane. You don't have to do special chemistry, it's just part of the materials we're using. That translates ultimately into cost savings."

When membranes collect contaminants, a fouling layer builds up, making it more difficult for water to pass. As a result, users have to increase pressure to maintain the same water flow, which leads to increased energy costs.

The membrane also needs to be cleaned less frequently, which is a win for users, Greenlee said.

"With the new membrane, we would expect less cleaning cost — you're paying less for cleaning chemicals and there's less down time for cleaning," she said.

Greenlee said the brewing industry is a good example of a sector that could benefit from the technology.

"They use filtration both ahead of the brewing process, to filter the incoming water, and then post-brewing to filter out the proteins and things in the beer that result from the brewing process," she said. "The low fouling aspect could be a huge advantage for breweries, especially on the back end, because of all the organics and proteins that are in the fermentation process. There's a lot of stuff to be taken out."

Brewing is also generally a smaller, more agile industry with leaders who are open to new ideas, Greenlee said.

"It's an industry we see as being very progressive, where the owners want to try new technology," she said. "They're willing to let you come in and do a pilot test."

Once the team is able to conduct real-world demonstrations, they anticipate being able to scale and work with larger users, like municipalities.

"Municipalities really need to feel confident when they take on a new technology that it's going to work well for them," Greenlee said. "Private industry likely won't be as big in terms of flows, and it's not tied to public funds."

Abolhassani, whose graduate research played a key role in the technology, said the concept has big implications.

"The membrane filtration could have a significant effect on a wide range of industrial processes," he said.

SOURCE: University of Arkansas