WATERLOO, ONT.—When scientists go with their gut or act on a hunch, it can pay off.
For Tim Leshuk, a PhD student in nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo, he knew it was a long shot.
Leshuk had been working with Frank Gu, who leads a nanotechnology research group, on using tiny nanoparticles that have been tweaked with certain properties to purify contaminated water.
Leshuk was working on the process, treating dirty water such as that found in Alberta’s oilsands, with the nanoparticles combined with ultraviolet light. He wondered what might happen if exposed to actual sunlight.
“I didn’t have high hopes,” he said. “For the heck of it, I took some beakers out and put them on the roof. And when I came back, it was far more effective that we had seen with regular UV light.
“It was high-fives all around,” Leshuk said. “It’s not like a Brita filter or a sponge that just soaks up pollutants. It completely breaks them down.”
Things are accelerating quickly, with a spinoff company now formally created called H2nanO, with more ongoing tests scheduled. The research has drawn attention from oilsands companies, and large pre-pilot project to be funded by the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance is due to get under way soon.
The excitement comes because it’s an entirely green process, converting solar energy for cleanup, and the nanoparticle material is reuseable, over and over.
“The nanoparticles will clean up the water, and you can collect them, and add to another batch of polluted water and do it over again,” Leschuk said.
The challenge is collecting these tiny particles, because they can’t just be filtered out of the water.
Initially the idea was to ensure the particles had a magnetic core — where using a magnetic field to the treated water, the particles are easily collected. By then they decided it might be easier to make the particles buoyant, so after the water is cleaned, they float to the surface like small bubbles or foam.
“It’s low cost and low energy, using just sunlight and flotation,” he said. “It’s a really high-tech, nanotech process that’s very simple.”
The startup company needs to manufacture larger quantities of its particles and run pilot studies to determine if it would work at large scale — and leave no trace of anything. And ideally, if it can operate with solar-power paddlewheel, making it an off-grid water treatment system, ideal for remote areas.
“Right now, the question is will it work at scale? And if we can answer that questions as quickly as possible, then we think we have a home run,” he added.
“We are researchers at heart. I don’t think our work will ever be done, but we are pretty happy with the recipe we have,” Leshuk said.
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