Tech On Tap: UA Inventors Address World Water Woes

UA researchers have developed a number of promising solutions and inventions that are ready for companies to adopt and take out into the world.
March 19, 2019
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The University of Arizona has an active research community working on solutions to the flood of water problems facing our world. From engineering to agriculture, interdisciplinary research teams across the UA are diving into these grand challenges and developing solutions.

Such inventions are, by nature, early stage as they are just emerging from research. Tech Launch Arizona, the UA office that commercializes inventions stemming from research, is working closely with the UA research community to bring the best and most promising innovations to the world.

"Solutions for today’s problems that we see coming from across the UA are world-class," says Rakhi Gibbons, director of licensing at Tech Launch Arizona, "and a great many of these inventions are real game-changers."

Motivating Community Water Conservation
With drought a major global issue, the public needs to be better educated and motivated to address water conservation. The Conserve to Enhance program was developed by Sharon Megdal and Tucson Water Conservation Manager Candice Rupprecht, who are collaborating at the UA's Water Resources Research Center. Conserve to Enhance, or C2E, is a unique program motivating consumers to use water more efficiently, linking water conservation efforts with environmental enhancements in the community and region. 

Extending the Utility of Wash Water for Organic Produce
When harvested, organic fruits and vegetables are commonly treated with chemical sanitizers to control microbial contamination – a process that requires substantial amounts of water. In the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Sadhana Ravishankar and Libin Zhu have developed antimicrobial plant compounds that can be used multiple times in wash water without the loss of antimicrobial efficacy. With the compounds they have invented, washing solutions can be re-used five times without losing sanitizing efficiency. In addition, the compounds are more biodegradable than chemical sanitizers. 

Removing Pollutants from Water
Reyes Sierra and James Field in the UA Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, have developed a variety of methods to remove pollutants from water.  Perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, are used to make everything from stains and paints to cleaners to cosmetics, and are a common contaminant. A new method developed by Sierra and Field targets removal of these PFCs, addressing the Environmental Protection Agency's 2009 standards for acceptable levels in drinking water. The inventors, along with Jon Chorover, head of the UA Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, have also developed ways to remove latent, harmful explosive materials from water. These technologies have applications throughout the delivery infrastructure, from underground aquifers to water treatment plants to the home.

Fresh, Low-cost Desalinated Water from the Sea
As populations increase, the world needs more sources for fresh drinking water. While seawater offers an excellent resource, desalination processes developed to date have been either uneconomical or not environmentally responsible. Peiwen Li, professor and head of the UA Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, has developed a low-cost, airflow-driven desalination system that separates the components of seawater, yielding two valuable products: clean water, and its component salts and minerals.

Minimizing Water Loss Through Better Detection of Infrastructure Leaks
When it comes to infrastructure for water delivery, system leaks mean loss of both money and water. How can we effectively and quickly detect such leaks and breaks in complex underground systems? UA College of Engineering Professor Kevin Lansey and Associate Professor Jian Liu have developed a pressure monitoring technique able to detect and precisely locate pipe breaks in complex water distribution systems in real-time. The system consists of an informatics platform and monitors that can be installed on existing meters. It has applications in agricultural, municipal, residential and commercial water management.

Cleaning Up Ocean Plastic Pollution
Each year, up to 8 million metric tons of plastic enters our planet's oceans. These plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces, some measuring a fraction of a millimeter, and enter the food chain and eventually the seafood we eat. That contamination can lead to illnesses like cancer. Along with risks to human health, floating plastic also contributes to oceanic dead zones. In short, removing plastic from the ocean has become a critical problem requiring human intervention. Moe Momayez, associate professor of mining and geological engineering, has taken on this challenge, inventing a hydrocyclone that can separate plastics from water. It is designed to filter plastic pieces smaller than five millimeters in size while returning nutrients like plankton back to the ocean.

When it comes to innovation, the UA has its sights set on solving these challenges and making a better world.