Richard Crooks

Photo courtesy of the University of Texas.

Researchers at UT have developed a new desalination method that uses electrochemistry to make drinking water from seawater.

Led by UT chemistry professor Richard Crooks, the team works using a small electric field to separate salt from seawater. Working with researchers from the University of Marburg in Germany, Crooks and his team developed a small plastic chip, known as a “WaterChip,” that performs the process on a microscale. The team believes their technique, electrochemically mediated seawater desalination, could provide a simpler and more energy-efficient alternative to conventional methods such as reverse osmosis.

“When you talk about desalination, you have to talk about the energy efficiency. And that’s really one of the benefits of the technique we’ve created,” Kyle Knust, a graduate student working on the project, said. “When you compare energy efficiencies, we’re only slightly above the [minimum] amount of energy you need to drive the desalination process. This is why this is so interesting.”

Okeanos Technologies, a startup company in Kentucky, is now working on scaling-up the WaterChip design in order to put the new method into commercial use. Tony Frudakis, the company’s founder and CEO, approached Crooks more than a year ago about adapting his molecule purification method for seawater desalination and helped secure funding for the research. Frudakis expects the company to have its first prototype ready by the end of the year.

“We believe this technology has the potential to be the first breakthrough in desalination since the 1950s,” Frudakis said. “It’s already desalinating at very low scales with world record efficiency.”

If the technology can be scaled up, Frudakis believes it has the potential to not only replace reverse osmosis as the lead desalination method, but provide water to places where drinkable water is a limited resource.

“Right now the problem is that we can get drinking water from saltwater, but the technology is very energy-great and extensive,” Frudakis said. “If there were a method to desalinate that was cost effective, a lot of the dynamics could be changed. Desalination could take place where it’s needed most desperately.”

Besides the scaling-up process, the method itself also needs to be improved before it can be implemented commercially. According to Knust, the method currently removes 25 percent of salt from seawater. Frudakis and his team must work on improving the salt rejection rate to 99 percent. However, Knust believes that once that is achieved, the technology could solve a lot of problems related to water access.

“There’s a need for seawater desalination. Everyone needs water,” Knust said. “Seawater accounts for 97 and a half percent of all the water on Earth. If you could start accessing that, you can envision how big of a sink of freshwater that could be.”

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Chemistry professor Richard Crooks and graduate student Hong Liu developed the origami Paper Analytical Device (oPAD) that can identify biomarkers which signal the presence of specific diseases. Photo courtesy of Alex Wang

Correction on 03/25/12 at 9:07 p.m.: Because of a reporting and editing error, this article incorrectly stated that the Paper Analytical Device can now be used to test for HIV and malaria. The story now reflects that the technology may be able to test for such diseases.

As a result of work done by a UT graduate student, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding may be used to test for such diseases as HIV and malaria.

Chemistry professor Richard Crooks and chemistry graduate student Hong Liu developed an origami Paper Analytical Device, or oPAD, that chemically analyzes human bodily fluids and identifies different biomarkers that signal the presence of disease. The device works with folded paper to run complex tests using less surface area and costs under 10 cents. Liu said he is focusing his device to recognize AIDS and malaria, but hopes to use it for the diagnosis of other diseases in the future. Although the oPAD is receiving recognition, it is still in its clinical stages, Liu said.

“We are trying to head toward it testing more things,” Liu said. “We are trying to find more profiles that the test can recognize so it can have a more practical application.”

Marcus Sanchez, spokesman for AIDS Services of Austin, said the test is cost efficient to the point that it would allow for organizations like AIDS Services of Austin to test more patients that are at risk of the disease because the main constraint when it comes to testing is funding.

“Tests are expensive,” Sanchez said. “Currently we test people that are at the highest risk of the disease, such as people who have unprotected sex with multiple partners, but with [the oPAD] it will allow us to test more people.”

Because of its simple design and cost efficiency, the oPAD will be used in developing nations where limited access to HIV and malaria testing is difficult to come by, Crooks said.

Andrew Johnson, biology and sociology senior and education coordinator of Face Aids, said the test would be important in developing nations because it could be a widespread preventative health measure that would be readily available in countries where there is no money in public health departments.

“Knowing their status is an important mechanism in AIDS prevention,“ Johnson said. “It allows people to make responsible decisions about their health and how it would affect others.“

Liu said the initial idea for oPAD was inspired from his schooling in China and from an article he read by Harvard professor George Whitesides, who conducted research on similar testing devices.

“While at school in China the teacher taught us how to fold origami,” Liu said. “Then when I read the article I remembered that paper folds easily and tests really well.”

Liu said the test is more effective than other methods currently on the market.

“The oPAD’s 3-D design allows you to integrate more functions than the stuff on the market,” Liu said.

Printed on Friday, March 23, 2012 as: Paper sensor may lower disease testing costs