On the Water Front, The UCLA WaTeR Center
A UCLA team of engineers works to find alternative sources or water.
As far back as the 1940s, faculty and researchers here were writing proposals and doing research on novel technologies for fresh water production.
Originally published by UCLA OIP.
Water is the paradox.
To the west, the Pacific Ocean stretches as far as the eye can see. Wet. Blue. And inviting. But turn around and you are immediately confronted with the reality on the ground. Much of California is little more than scrub desert. Harsh. Hostile to life. Given this paradox, it is not surprising that water has been a defining issue in the history of the Golden State.
UCLA has long been at the forefront of the struggle to secure adequate supplies of fresh water for California’s ever-growing population. That, in fact, has been one of the school’s primary missions, says Yoram Cohen, the founding director of UCLA’s Water Technology Research Center.
“The School of Engineering and Applied Science was founded on four pillars: energy, transportation, air pollution and water,” he elaborates. “As far back as the 1940s, faculty and researchers here were writing proposals and doing research on novel technologies for fresh water production.”
UCLA patented the first commercially viable reverse-osmosis (RO) membrane in 1960. And although the original UCLA membrane was replaced with more efficient membranes developed in industry, the UCLA team has been globally credited with giving birth to modern RO membrane technology. Carrying this proud tradition on into the 21st century, Cohen and fellow researchers Eric Hoek and Julius “Bud” Glater founded the UCLA WaTeR Center in 2005. And using the WaTeR Center as their base of operations, they and their colleagues have embarked on a mission to advance our understanding of water use and production around the globe in order to develop technologies for new and economical alternative sources of potable, irrigation and consumptive water uses.
“Given the severe water shortage problems we face in this state,” says Cohen, “we have had to accelerate our efforts to develop and improve technologies for water reclamation and recycling, while exploring the utilization of water sources that are not currently used for potable water. This technology has moved very quickly from traditional technologies that utilize large treatment basins to membrane-based technology.”
This approach has resulted in the development of revolutionary, UCLA-patented, surface nano- structuring technology for synthesizing another class of membranes for water desalination. With their high resistance to fouling and mineral scaling, these membranes represent a significant improvement over the technology that is currently available commercially. WaTeR Center students and faculty have also developed patented desalination technology that integrates RO desalination with chemical demineralization. And using this technology, an unprecedented 95-percent product-water recovery in desalting of brackish water has been achieved.
“Effective operation of RO plants, specifically for inland water desalting, requires monitoring of the onset of mineral scaling and fouling,” adds Cohen. “And to that end, WaTer Center faculty and students have also developed a patented online monitor that interfaces with the RO plant control system to enable advanced scaling and fouling mitigation.”
With membrane-based technology, Cohen notes, processes occur at a much shorter time scale, and this in turn requires expertise in process control, in material science, in hydrodynamics, in fluid mechanics, in the area of membrane bioreactors, in the area of desalination, in the area of transport phenomena, in chemistry, and in polymer science. “So when you combine all those together,” he says, “you realize that the only way to achieve that is a team approach.”
Thus, the research and development work at the WaTeR Center necessarily reaches across departmental lines. But Cohen points out that the WaTeR Center also works with partners in industry, state and municipal water agencies, and a number of international partners such as Victoria and RMIT Universities in Australia, the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (Catalunya, Spain) and Ben Gurion University in Israel. He counts 20 affiliates in all and notes that one thing they all have in common is an interest in making better use of the planet’s dwindling reserves of fresh water.
“Water is a local resource,” he says, “There is not much competition in terms of the mining of that resource for import or export. So it’s easier to share knowledge.”
With this focus on finding solutions to real-world problems, technology transfer is a natural outgrowth of the WaTeR Center’s day-to-day activities. Cohen notes, for example, that students from theWaTeR Center have tested UCLA’s water desalination technology in the field both in California and in collaborations with foreign partners.
This pays dividends not only for the WaTeR Center’s affiliates; it also advances UCLA’s mission as an institution of higher learning.
“It’s incredibly exciting not just for the faculty researchers but for the students when they get the opportunity to put the science and engineering that they developed to use during the course of their thesis research,” says Cohen. “This gives them an incredible opportunity, and it also gets them very excited. They interact with professionals, and they see that they can make a difference in the world.”
Technology Transfer: the Essential Connection
WaTeR Center co-founder Eric Hoek, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, understands the importance of bringing innovation out of the laboratory and turning it into commercially viable technologies. His story, in fact, tells a lot about the way the WaTeR Center is meeting its responsibilities to both the University of California and the community that supports it.
Working with his students and colleagues at theWaTeR Center, Hoek has pioneered a new approach to making reverse osmosis membranes. This technology produces energy-efficient and fouling- resistant membranes by combining nanoparticles with conventional membrane polymers.
Eric Hoek, Ph.D.
“About six years ago,” he explains, “we started synthesizing nanoparticles that, when integrated into standard membrane polymers, produce very high water productivity and improve the functionality of the membranes so they don’t foul as quickly. We expect our ‘thin film nanocomposite’ membranes to open up new process engineering opportunities for more cost-effective and environmentally friendly desalination plant designs.
“Our initial research was funded by the UCLA engineering school, but later we received additional support to further explore nanocomposite RO membranes from a private company — NanoH2O Inc. — and the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI).”
As a private company, NanoH2O is in business to turn a profit, of course. But as Hoek points out, the ongoing efforts to commercialize his nanocomposite membrane technology serve to inspire and educate his students as well.
“It’s infectious as far as the students go,” he says. “It seems that every student in the group wants to do something that is going to lead to a new company. Obviously, every student is not going to accomplish that. But it does add a certain amount of excitement to what we do and inspires a sense of what is possible. We have also learned a lot about more practical issues related to membrane formation and application, which informs our larger research efforts on nanotechnology, membranes and water treatment.”
Although he is a bit more circumspect on the importance of commercializing the technology he and his colleagues develop, this more or less echoes Yoram Cohen’s guiding philosophy when it comes to setting a long- term course for the WaTeR Center. “I don’t consider technology transfer to be the act of making money or having a commercial entity that will develop a process. I consider it to be a success when the process or intellectual property can be put to good use, and we can demonstrate that it can.”
Published: Wednesday, June 02, 2010