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Nano Filters


WT staff

Interview with Andrew Myles Director, Research and Development at NRC, June 7, 2021.
The transciption below has been edited for clarity and length.

WT – I’d like to welcome Andrew Myles. He’s Research and Development Director for the Nanotechnology Research Center which is part of the National Research Council. Thanks for doing this Andrew.

Myles – No problem, thanks.

WT – I’d like to ask a whole bunch of questions. This is an area of particular interest to people interested in water of course. So, the first question, in simple terms what is a nano filter?

Myles – So what we’ve developed between the U of A's Advanced Water and Research Lab, IBM Almaden Research and NRC Nanotechnology Research Center is a coating that goes on common membranes. So, it's not a whole new membrane, we produce membranes the same way, we just buy them, but we’ve developed a coating that goes on top of them that prevents oily residues from fouling and clogging the pores of water membranes. So, increasing the efficiency of the purification process.

WT – People bandy around lots of terms around nanotech not all of them accurate, I’d like to be exact here. Why is self-cleaning nano-filter so important?

Myles – So it’s very important to reduce fouling in water purification, it’s a real crux for the industry to be able to properly and cost effectively purify water so the idea in using nano technology, is to make these small polymer particles that stick exceptionally well to the surface of plastics. In the case of water membranes, most are made of plastics, and so by creating these particles and adhering them to the surface, basically because it sticks to the surface then other things can’t. And because its very small it covers all of the surface of the membrane exceptionally well, preventing anything else from sticking and clogging the pores.

WT – Is this an expensive process? I get that it self-cleans and that you gain some water back. If you gain this water back does it make up for the extra cost of something like this?

Myles – One of the values of this process is that we can just use commercial membranes now and put a very very thin coating on it using our, they’re called star block co-polymers, or nano polymers. So, because we use such a very thin coating that doesn’t take very much. It does cost to make this material but certainly the anti-fouling properties and nonstick properties put on these plastic membranes allow for the cost recovery that we need.

Ultimately, we have to look at this from the application point of view. So different applications of water purification have different values. We are going for purification of oil and gas, oil production water is a high value area. But, ultimately the idea is to expand this technology into other water purification technologies such as wastewater, sewage those types of things.

WT – You’ve been doing this particular work since 2016. Why does something take 5, 6 years to develop? When is commercialization expected and is this something that Canada could do on its own or is this like so many other technologies we invent, then it’s made somewhere else, then sold back to us?

Myles – No, in this case its developed in Canada. So basically, it took a long time to set up the collaboration, get the materials made and get an understanding on how to make these materials. Then, we played around with the composition of these materials to suit them best for oil produced water. That’s what took so long, you have sometimes high acidity, you have sand, you have heat, so we had to test all of these parameters before saying that this had some value. In terms of commercialization, the next steps would be getting this into the pilot scale, cross-flow filtration unit that we have acquired. Huge unit, relative to what we’re used to in the lab. So now we’re embarking on that, you know within the next six months to a year we want to have a very clear indication that this is viable for the commercial market, and we will find that out by testing it on this large pilot scale unit that we’ve acquired.

WT – WaterToday deals with a lot of scientists at different places in the development cycle. Do you have advice for upcoming scientists, is there lessons to be learned from the process you went through?

Myles – Absolutely! The team that we formed is the reason why this project has been successful. From the very beginning strong communication between the teams and organizations was key. So, setting up multi-disciplinary, multi-institution projects can be more difficult than just doing it by yourself in your lab. But the value it provides is fantastic and that’s what I would say to young scientists getting into this; be bold, get out there make partnerships with those that you need to succeed.

Really, there’s been a lot of ups and downs in a project like this where we thought you know, it's not going to work, oh now it's going to work, it's not going to work, but you have to stay with it and success will come with the right team, the right people and with the right pursuit.

WT – When you talk about commercialization can you talk about how the commercialization process will work? For instance, once you prove this thing in real time, then what? Do you approach companies, or do you raise more money, go on the stock exchange? I’m trying to paint a picture for our readers.

Myles – That’s a great question. I think that how you commercialize a technology like this is actually unclear with lots of people, but we’ve already been in touch with many different companies in the area. You know, the U of A's Advanced Water Research Lab has many partners in this area so the idea would be to approach Canadian companies that currently work in the area and look at exploring whether they could introduce this material into their process to generate newer, resilient membrane technologies for their applications.

WT – Could wastewater specialists, for instance, several people we deal with work with fairly sophisticated lagoon wastewater systems. Is this the time where some of these people could call up Andrew and say look, this is what I do, could I use this filter now or are we at this point?

Myles – Yeah, I believe that the best thing to do is finish up the pilot scale, and that’s why I said we want to have that done within 6 months to a year. I find that we’ve already approached lots of partners and talked about this with companies and really what it is, is they need to see it on larger scale. This is hard when you develop nano-technologies, you’re working in a chemistry lab so you’re doing it in you know, 500 ml scale. We must scale this up thousands and hundreds of thousands of litres and that’s when commercial partners really take notice. I think often when things are done in the lab there’s an expectation that you can prove it on a larger scale before it will go to commercial, so that’s where were focused right now.

WT – Just to dig into the science a little bit here. Can you give our readers an idea in terms of how small these polymeric nanoparticles are?

Myles – The nanoparticles that we use are about 50 nanometers and just to give context a millimeter compared to a kilometer is the same as a nanometer compared to a millimeter.

WT– That’s incredible actually.

Myles – It's extremely small but it is a molecular assembly which - in terms of molecular levels - is a fairly large molecule, 15 nanometers, and it has a spongy hydrophobic core, and, on the outside, it has hydrophilic functionalities. So basically, the core likes oil and the outside likes water. What it does is because the inside is kind of spongy when it comes to the hydrophobic core, it actually sticks down on to it and forms very tight bonds and the water-soluble, or hydrophilic tails stick up into the water. So, what that does is it coats the whole surface with a hydrophilic coating which prevents oil from sticking anymore. So, because these things are kind of small and spongy, they can contort and fit right, stick right on to the surfaces in a conformal way so it sticks to bumpy surfaces, that’s the whole thing and makes the whole surface very hydrophilic preventing any oil from sticking.

WT – What you just explained to me, does this have anything to do with the often quoted, lotus effect. Is this something people could google then get an idea of what this is?

Myles – Yeah it is. In terms of the lotus effect, it’s an ultra-hydrophobic coating, that actually repels water. We make an ultra-hydrophilic coating because we want water to kind of flow through it, we don’t want oil to stick to it. Lotus leaves want the water to roll right off and not stick to the surface, so it is similar that way and lotus do it in a similar way by using a nano structure hydrophobic coating on their leaves. So yes, absolutely.

WT – My understanding of tailing pond is that they are quite large. If I process all of that tailing pond through this filter, this filter leaves me with much more clean water than say another technology, do I have that right?

Myles – I think that ultimately there is a combination of technologies that has to happen. With something as large as a tailing pond you can do a lot of separations before you actually pass any contaminated water through the membrane. You can remove a lot of the solids before you put it through the membrane; the filter is like a finishing and polishing where at the end you actually end up with very pure water that can be repurposed for various applications. Ultimately, we want to make sure that with such a precious resource in Canada that we do everything we can to keep it clean and productive for us and for the environment.

WT – This is an honourable thing to do. Just before I let you go, I’d like to give the readers of this interview an idea of how much six years and a new prototype cost. Like a hard cost, is it a million dollars, half a million dollars, is all time included? I would like to give people an idea of an overall sort of amount of money that needs to be spent for something like this from start to finish.

Myles – It was a long-term project, and we were able to solidify some funding from different places. The project is in line with the Advanced Water Research Lab's mandate so it's not hard for them to put some effort into this, we used their infrastructure. So, in terms of a dollar figure, it's tough to say, we’ve obtained about 300 thousand dollars from the IBM Alberta Center for Advanced studies. We were able to hire postdoc for three years so it's in the hundreds of thousands for sure, I don’t know if its upwards of a million but hundreds of thousands.

WT – Usually these days, as soon as you’ve made something better in a week you have another competitor with something the same or even better or cheaper. Do you think that there are competitors for this right behind you or is this something that’s almost a standalone idea?

Myles – There’s definitely lots and lots of technologies out there competing with this. One of the advantages we feel we have is that we can just use common you now, already produced membranes and coat them rather then have to build up a membrane from scratch. So, you know the manufacturing of the membranes currently is very advanced, lots and lots of expertise and scale up potential. So, our approach is not to change that but then use the final product of process and infer these advanced properties onto those common membranes.

WT – I find this interesting. Id love to get into micro science but for the benefit of our viewers we will just leave it at that. This has been Andrew Myles, he’s the Research and Development Director for the Nanotechnology Research Center and works with NRC. Thanks for doing this Andrew. Have a good day.


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