New Technology Could Help Clean Up Water in the US and the Developing World

Watch what you drink

  • New technologies are helping provide clean drinking water around the world.
  • Minnesota officials recently bought a machine to remove dangerous substances known as PFAS.
  • Experts say that by 2050, six billion people will suffer from clean water scarcity due to climate change.
Woman drinking water seaside after running at the beach

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Clean water is in short supply in many parts of the world, but new technologies could help. 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recently purchased machinery to remove concentrations of hazardous substances known as PFAS. The high-tech system works by injecting outdoor air into contaminated water, turning PFAS into foam that can be separated from the water. It's one of a growing number of devices that are helping make water safer. 

"Less than one percent of the Earth's surface area is actually freshwater," Prakash Govindan, co-founder of Gradiant, a company that makes water purification technology, told Lifewire in an email interview. "It's a very limited resource, and water stress is the first sign of climate change."

Water, Water, Everywhere

Using the machine in Minnesota, PFAS levels are significantly reduced when the foam is removed and the water is returned to the environment. The PFAS concentrate then goes to another unit, a second machine in which the carbon-fluorine bonds (the backbone of PFAS chemicals) are broken through electrochemical oxidation. 

"This pilot project marks the beginning of a new era for PFAS clean-up in Minnesota," said MPCA Commissioner Katrina Kessler in a news release. "This study will help us address PFAS contamination at the source and develop long-term solutions for cleaner water—ensuring safe drinking water for Minnesotans. We hope to eventually employ this technology around the state, including in Greater Minnesota, where PFAS is a growing concern."

Not a Drop to Spare

The need for technology like the one used in Minnesota is great, experts say. By 2050, six billion people will suffer from clean water scarcity as a result of climate change. 85 percent of them live in low- or middle-income countries, noted Neil Grimmer, brand president of renewable drinking water company SOURCE Global, in an email interview with Lifewire. He said that part of the problem is water technology hasn't changed much since the Roman Era. 

"This outdated system of pumps, treatment plants, and miles of pipes often doesn't reach remote places and is not economically viable for poor countries and communities," Grimmer said. "So we need innovation. We need new thinking, and if we fix the problem in countries where the challenges are greatest, we can unlock clean water for the rest of the world."

woman pouring water from bottle into the glass at outdoor restaurant

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Among the recent clean water, innovations in micro-irrigation technology that doesn't need electricity or filtration and can save massive amounts of the water used in agriculture. Some companies are using AI to identify and resolve potable water leaks in real-time, and researchers are working on technology that can more effectively filter water and even detect contaminants.

Gradiant offers membrane technologies, used for separating water from contaminant particles based on size and charge, have evolved over the past few years and are now "one of the most important" water purification technologies, Govindan said. Other approaches, including Gradiant's Carrier Gas Extraction, which mimic the natural rain cycle, ion exchange, and free radical oxidation, are "playing a major role" in treating industrial wastewater.

Ginger Rothrock, a senior director at HG Ventures, a firm that funds sustainability entrepreneurs, said via email that new processes for capturing contaminants include capture media (powders that specifically hold onto contamination) or electric fields that attract and deposit heavy metals. For example, one company HGV invests in, Electramet, uses electricity to pull metals out of a wastestream, much like a Brita filter. 

"This is particularly important for regulated metals like copper, and chrome, that have known human health impacts," Rothrock added.

Data could also be an important means of creating clean water. The nonprofit charity: water has introduced a new kind of water sensor that monitors water projects in remote locations across Africa and Asia. The device can remotely monitor water usage and the health of hand pumps in real-time using an IoT-based sensor. The sensor costs less than $250 and connects with local telecom companies across the globe.

"The developing world often faces the brunt of water problems, although even in the US, we find things like arsenic and Forever Chemicals in our water supply, and [there have been] droughts in many states," Riggs Eckelberry, CEO of OriginClear, a water technology company, said in an email. "Simply put, we must clean, recycle, and protect our water supply everywhere we can."

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