Professor Benjamin S. Hsiao from Stony Brook University’s Department of Chemistry and his team are researching two innovative and robust solutions to provide drinking water at the University’s Turkana Basin Institute (TBI) in northern Kenya. They are using Hsiao’s breakthrough nanofibrous membrane technologies powered by gravity or solar heat, two free energy sources.
“Much of the world’s population lives off the grid and has little expectation of having grid services provided,” said Hsiao. “If we are to address issues of fairness and security in the developing world, the challenge is to find ways for people to live off the grid with reasonably reliable access to energy and water.”
This challenge is most notable in Africa, which has the most youthful population on earth, and its population is growing faster than anywhere else (projected to grow from 1 billion people to more than 3.5 billion by the end of this century). The continent is rich in natural resources, but it struggles with a disproportionate share of disease, poverty and hunger.
This challenge is not unique to Africa. Examples also exist in developing countries in Asia and South America. Today, an estimated 1.3 billion people do not have access to electricity and about 1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water.
“What can be useful to deal with this grand challenge is the adoption of an integrated, systems-based approach that provides environmentally sound, sustainable energy and water solutions to village needs in rural regions, where these solutions can lead to opportunities for economic development, improved public health and increased political stability,” added Hsiao.
The establishment of the Innovative Global Energy Solutions Center (igesc), located in the Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center building at Stony Brook University, is to realize this vision using the e-TBI Project as a test bed. TBI has two off-grid research facilities near Lake Turkana; both are fully equipped to house visitors and students year-round to analyze the needs of the sub-Saharan environment, field test solutions and offer hands-on training for participants from around the world.
The first solution that Hsiao and his team are testing at TBI involves the development of a gravity-driven microfilter using membranes containing an electrospun nanofibrous scaffold that can remove over 99 percent of typical bacteria by size exclusion and an immobilized nanoweb of carboxylated cellulose nanofibers that can remove 99 percent of typical viruses by adsorption.
Based on this technology, one of Hsiao’s start-ups, Liquidity Nanotechnology, has won both the Next Generation Technology competition in Launch: Silicon Valley 2014 World Cup Tech Challenge and TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2015 Startup Battlefield.
This technology was also highlighted by the National Science Foundation in a 2015 exhibit for the U.S. Congress and featured by the UK’s Guardian newspaper for providing affordable drinking water solutions. The core technology is funded by the NSF.
The second solution involves the development of a solar-powered membrane distillation system using electrospun superhydrophobic nanofibrous membranes capable of converting brackish water into drinking water. This project is funded by the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology.
Both water solutions can also provide critical relief if domestic drinking water is compromised by a catastrophic disaster.
The e-TBI project will serve as a model to address the grand challenges of energy, water and information technology sustainability in the remote regions of the developing world, and offer economic development opportunity to local communities through research and education.