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Human Effort

97: Desalination via aquaporin water channel protein

Problem:

Worldwide water purification remains a major challenge.

Solution:

Desalination via aquaporin water channel protein


In the late 1980s, Peter Agre, a physician-scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, found an unknown protein that contaminated his every attempt to isolate the Rh protein from red blood cells. Intrigued by this mysterious interloper, Agre persevered until he revealed its function and structure.

The protein, which he named “aquaporin,” turned out to be an essential piece of the cell’s apparatus for maintaining the right balance of water inside and outside of the cell. Its structure is superbly adapted to let water molecules, and only water molecules, pass through in large number with remarkable efficiency and speed.

Aquaporins are crucial for life in all organisms, from bacteria via plants to man. They facilitate rapid, highly selective water transport across the cell membrane, thus allowing the cell to regulate its volume and internal osmotic pressure according to hydrostatic and/or osmotic pressure differences.

The importance of the aquaporin for humans is perhaps most conspicuous in the kidney, where 40 to 50 gallons (150-200 litres) of water need to be reabsorbed from the primary urine each day, that is, aquaporin facilitated water transport is invoked when water must be rapidly retrieved from a body fluid.

Aquaporin water channels are also important to life on Earth, also transforming our ability to purify drinking water at a large scale, that in 2003 the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Professor Agre for his discovery.

The need for clean water is an equally compelling problem being tackled by bio-engineers. Biophysicist Morten Østergaard Jensen speculated that aquaporin could form the basis of a biological water filter.

Together with entrepreneur Peter Holme Jensen, he formed a company in 2005 that aimed to scale up aquaporin-based water filtration. Aquaporin A/S in Kongens Lyngby, Denmark, has developed Aquaporin Inside technology devices to be employed in industrial and household water filtration and purification.

Aquaporin InsideTap Water Reverse Osmosis elements are sold globally and in standard configuration from 1812 up to 8040 elements, making it easy for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to use in their systems for a more sustainable production of healthy drinking water.

In September 2015, Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen used Aquaporin A/S membranes to filter the water he drank in space. Making sure that astronauts have enough to drink is one of the toughest parts to figuring out long-term space travel. Water is heavy, quickly used and expensive to get into orbit. To put it into perspective, it costs US$10,000 per pound to launch a spaceship, and a gallon of water weighs 8.33 lb (3.8 kg).

Since 2011, Aquaporin had been working with NASA and Danish Aerospace Company, testing prototypes in a lab so that four years later Mogensen and crew members were able to drink filtered urine on the International Space Station.

In June 2018, Berghof Membrane Technology, a manufacturer of tubular membranes for the filtration and separation of industrial process streams and wastewater, signed a joint development agreement with Aquaporin A/S, wherein both companies would leverage their respective expertise in forward osmosis (FO) and tubular membrane technologies to launch products targeted for high-strength industrial wastewater and food and beverage process streams.

Aquaporin also teamed up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to form a student program to further develop research into the applications of aquaporin. Two Chinese companies are also involved.

According to a report issued in August 2019 by Bridge Market Research, The global tubular membrane market is projected to be US$ 137.33 billion by 2026. This increase in market value stems from a growing interest and concern for the environment and a lack of freshwater sources, leading to increased interest in water treatment and purification systems.

Alongside Aquaporin, a host of companies are now involved: MICRODYN-NADIR; Filtration Group Corporation; Dynatec Systems; Spintek; Pentair plc; Berghof Membranes; Duraflow LLC; Hyflux Ltd.; Athersys Inc.; BASF SE; Lenntech B.V.; Markel Corporation; Synder Filtration, Inc.; Koninklijke DSM N.V.; Koch Membrane Systems, Inc.; ASTOM Corporation; KATMAJ Filtration; CleaNsep Systems; Advent Envirocare Technology Pvt. Ltd.; SEPRA S.r.l.; M.W. Watermark, L.L.C.; Christian Bürkert GmbH & Co. KG and SUEZ.

What you can do: Be frugal in your use of fresh drinking water and selective in your choice of bottles

Discover solution 97: biodegradable diapers

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