“The NEWDL has landed,” said Matt Hotze, administrative director of Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) at Rice University.
He was referring to the 9,000-pound shipping container set in place by a crane at the north end of Abercrombie Laboratory on Oct. 25. NEWDL (pronounced “noodle”) is short for Nanotechnology Enhanced Water Design Laboratory, a water purification plant housed in a steel box that can treat 5,000 liters of water per hour. The acronym was conceived by Hotze and his colleagues.
“Not a lot of undergraduates get exposed to actually doing hands-on water treatment. Now they’ll have that direct experience. We’ll be using the NEWDL for both undergraduate teaching and research,” Hotze said.
The portable water-treatment plants are manufactured by WaterHealth International (WHI) of Irvine, Calif. The company gives them another acronym – ATOM, for Autonomous Transportable Operating Module – and markets them as “mobile water treatment and dispensation plants” that turn surface water into safe, potable water. What’s new about ATOM is the packaging – all of the treatment equipment is compactly installed inside a standard 20-foot shipping container which can be operational within 24 hours.
WHI already operates some 600 water-purification systems in India, Ghana and Nigeria. In India alone, WHI’s portable labs daily purify more than 1.6 million liters of water and serve some 7 million people. The units can be monitored remotely with laptop, tablet or phone software.
ATOM, with all the equipment housed in a shipping container, is a novel idea. Only Rice and Hyderabad, the fourth largest city in India, have been supplied thus far with ATOMs, though more are being assembled in China.
“We are technology-agnostic. All of the equipment is available on the market. We bring it all together,” said Sameer Mithal, WHI’s chief development officer, who added that ATOMs are ideal for disaster relief scenarios, such as Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
The equipment in ATOM removes contaminants using ultra-filtration and reverse osmosis. The water then is then disinfected with ultraviolet light to remove any remaining microbiological contaminants. WHI has set itself a goal of providing potable water to 100 million people by 2020. Thus far it is supplying clean water to 10 million.
NEWT, Houston’s first National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center, develops compact, mobile water-treatment systems. Founded in 2015, NEWT is funded by a five-year, $18.5 million NSF grant that can be renewed for an additional five years. The center brings together water-treatment experts from Rice, Arizona State University, Yale University and the University of Texas at El Paso to work with more than 30 partners, including WHI, Shell, UNESCO and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The ATOM unit was funded by NEWT, the Dow Chemical Company and WaterHealth International.
Hotze noted that the NSF mandates that the ratio of graduate to undergraduate students doing research through NEWT must reach 2:1 by the third year of the grant, when the renewal process begins. “The unit in water treatment health complements the activities in the OEDK, and we hope this will attract engineering students to the program,” Hotze said.
Besides civil and environmental engineering, ATOM will draw students enrolled in 20 courses in chemical and biomolecular engineering, electrical and computer engineering, materials science and nanoengineering, and mechanical engineering.
“We’ll have students working with different sorts of input water, what you would see working in the field. This is real-world education,” Hotze said.