New technology can decontaminate waste water and generate energy

Dr Daniel MalkoAlmost all industries use water in their production processes. Many, such as the chemical and food and drink industries, produce vast quantities of water that is contaminated with a mixture of organic molecules including sugars, fats and acids. Waste water must be cleaned before it can be discharged and that costs energy and money.

One method to decontaminate water uses bacteria to break down organic molecules, but bacteria cannot cope with other toxic chemicals that might be present in waste water. Neither can they cope with extremes of temperature or pressure.

However, a team of Imperial chemists have developed a new way to process waste water, which also reduces or eliminates the energy cost.

When Dr Daniel Malko and Dr Javier Rubio-Garcia made the discovery, they were studying energy storage and conversion devices in the lab of Professor Anthony Kucernak, whose research is focused around fuel cells.

“Fuel cells have a number of advantages over batteries,” Dr Malko explains. “Because they generate electricity from a fuel, they take just a few minutes to refuel and, once refuelled, they can provide a longer range. So, they could be used, for example, to power electric cars.

“To make the reactions work within fuel cells we need to use catalysts, and these tend to be based on noble metals – gold, silver, platinum – so they’re expensive to produce.”

During his PhD, Dr Malko was researching possible alternatives to noble metal catalysts and investigating how they worked. These alternatives are based on abundant and low-cost elements, which are also resistant to poisons, meaning they could potentially work in challenging environments, such as contaminated water.

Dr Daniel MalkoThis inspired Dr Malko, Dr Rubio-Garcia and Professor Kucernak to develop a device that can break down organic molecules to help clean up industrial waste water. At the same time, the process could actually produce energy rather than consume it. The idea grew into a business, SweetGen Ltd.

Dr Malko explains: “We had developed a technique to clean industrial waste water by using low energy input or even producing energy. This had the potential to improve the carbon balance of many industrial processes. When I read an email about the Techcelerate programme, I knew it was a good opportunity to do market research for the company.

“I went to various conferences to identify potential markets for the technology, for example leather tanneries, breweries, chemical and pharmaceutical businesses.

“We already had some ideas about possible markets, but I discovered that the chemical industry had a higher market value. It is unable to use bacteria because of the presence of other toxic chemicals, but our process still works in the presence of these chemicals, as well as at high temperatures and pressures.

“The funds provided by the programme allowed us to visit some of these companies and learn more about their challenges.”

Following his time on the Techcelerate programme, Dr Malko is continuing to develop the technology while looking for partners in various industries to enable him to move the device to the pilot stage.

He adds: “Techcelerate is a good opportunity to understand the value that your research could have in industry. Going on the programme also helped on a personal level because I gained experience of how to approach and interview people. It helped me to find new markets, find the right people to speak to, and know the right questions to ask.”