Clean drinking water: Canberra scientists using hot bubbles to cheaply sterilise water

Clean drinking water is a basic need for human survival, yet millions of people around the world go without each day. According to UNICEF, more than 660 million people use unsafe drinking water and more than 2.4 billion do not have access to sufficient sanitation. The vast problem has been the driver behind the work of two retired Canberra professors to improve the quality of drinking water around the world. Professor Barry Ninham and Professor Ric Pashley have developed world-first technology that heats water more effectively and efficiently than boiling it. The technology can be used for desalination, cleaning recycled water and removing toxic elements like arsenic, mercury and lead. “We’re using hot bubbles, a bubble column evaporator,” Professor Ninham told 666 ABC Canberra’s Drive program. “In that system you can take bugs and you can sterilise them.” Professor Ninham said removing drugs and viruses found in recycled or dirty water had previously been difficult. “It turns out the hot bubbles do it,” he said. “If a virus comes in contact with the surface of a hot bubble — where all hell’s breaking loose in ways we don’t understand — the virus is killed. “If you take a drug or antibiotics in water … it destroys the drug.” ‘Hot bubble technology’ much cheaper, more energy efficient Professor Ninham said the process was much cheaper and more energy efficient than current methods. “It’s easy to heat bubbles whereas to heat water takes a lot of energy and money,” he said. “We believe we can desalinate water for one-tenth or less of the cost of present desalination. “Present desalination techniques that use membranes are very expensive and even then they have problems.” Professor Ninham and Professor Pashley have gathered a team of researchers and scientists to form RENEWater. The new venture is working with the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and industry to take the technology to the Third World, disaster zones and anywhere clean water is difficult to source. The technology is going through trademark and patenting with the approval of UNSW. Professor Ninham is the world’s leading researcher in colloid and surface sciences, and is best known for his work in the self-assembly of biological molecules and in the theory of molecular forces. The Australian Academy of Science has just awarded him the Matthew Flinders Medal in recognition of the impact his work has had in science and research around the world. “He has achieved so much in his field, it is hard to measure his impact,” Professor Andrew Holmes from the academy said. “Over his career, he has published hundreds of research papers which have profoundly influenced the way scientists approach work in their field. “Professor Ninham also founded the Department of Applied Mathematics at the Australian National University in 1970, bringing theoreticians and experimentalists together for the first time in Australia.” The Matthew Flinders Medal, named after one of Australia’s early scientific researchers, is presented every two years to Australia’s most influential and inspiring scientists working in the physical sciences. Professor Ninham will be presented the medal at Science at the Shine Dome in 2017, when he will deliver a lecture to leaders in the Australian scientific community.

ABC News, 29 September 2016 ; ;