L to R: Colleen Callahan, Yoram Cohen, and Cully Nordby drink water purified by Cohen's Com2RO suystem
As part of the IOES/Luskin seminar series, Yoram Cohen, Luskin Center scholar and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, gave participants a sneak peek into the future of distributed smart water system technology, their use, and implications.
Opening his presentation, Cohen described the need for water treatment and use/reuse in localized systems. Given the world's water shortages and the nation’s aging water infrastructure – which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates would cost $350-$450 billion to upgrade – augmenting centralized water infrastructure with local smart water systems will become increasingly important, and cost effective. Desalination systems for distributed deployment, for example, can have many different applications including the treatment of agricultural drainage water, industrial brackish water, seawater, and secondary treated municipal waste water (water reuse).
Cohen then described Com2RO, a technology that he pioneered in the UCLA Water Technology Research (WaTeR) Center together with fellow engineering professor Pangiotis Christofides and their students. What makes Com2RO unique is both its small size – designed under a grant from the Navy to fit into the watertight hatch doors of their ships – but, more importantly, the way the ultrafiltration (UF) and reverse osmosis (RO) modules of the system “talk” to each other. Most water-cleaning systems fail when confronted with a change in water quality, but in contrast, Com2RO is a smart system that allows the RO and UF to work seamlessly together. This is important because the RO is designed primarily for removing dissolved salts, but the RO membranes would choke on larger particles. Ultra filtration steps in ahead of the osmosis to remove micro-organisms and other particles larger than salts.*
The implications are huge and far-reaching. While water-cleaning systems have traditionally needed to be adjusted or even redesigned to handle different kinds of dirty water, the Com2RO could produce freshwater in poverty-stricken countries without experts to adjust the system if polluted water becomes more mineralized or salty. It could also be used on Navy ships to produce drinkable water from both salt water and gray water. In fact, Com2RO was successfully tested on navy ships in Port Hueneme as well as at UCLA’s cogeneration power plant. Capable of feeding up to 58,000 gallons per day of fresh water, these systems have the potential to transform large amounts of dirty water into drinking water, where they are needed most.*
UCLA is patenting the technology and a next step is commercialization. Through their work Cohen and Christofides, along with their many students, highlight how UCLA research has resulted in real, practical solutions.
* Paragrpah modified from the UCLA Today article "Profs' water-cleaning system could save campus thousands of gallons, dollars" by Alison Hewitt.