Imagine if some of the most toxic and dirtiest industrial wastewater could be re-used instead of dumped down the drain. This would result in water savings of billions of dollars, especially for water-hungry power plants and oil fracking operations. One Boston start up, Oasys Water, is aspiring toward this water recycling goal with technology that uses hair-thin membranes and other processes to filter out contaminants. Chemist Zachary Helm is proud to be on the frontline of innovative waste water treatment solutions. Helm spoke with Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene about reclaiming industrial waste water.
There’s one thing about water that I would like people to know: Water scarcity is one of the world’s most pressing challenges. Industrial waste water in particular is a huge problem – for example, it takes five million gallons to do a single hydraulic fracturing. A lot of this extraction is happening in dry regions, so there’s tension between scarce fresh water and the need for it in industrial markets. Remaining wastewater has silica, sulfates and heavy industrial salts – even more dissolved solids than in seawater. Separating water away from salty solutions is thermodynamically challenging; there are limits imposed by nature that are difficult to overcome. Oasys has developed a technology called ‘forward osmosis’ which pushes the water through a series of membranes. I wear many hats at Oasys, including analyzing and testing water samples from all over the world to see what waters from different regions are best suited for our technology. I also helped develop Oasys proprietary membrane and the chemicals needed for the system’s operation. The project went from bench lab tests to pilot projects, and ultimately commercial use in China and elsewhere. For me, it’s coming full circle – my background is in biochemistry but I learned the nuances and behavior of not just water but also dissolved minerals and other ions. I grew up in a farm in Maine and we used to have all sorts of water pipe problems. So even at a young age, I’d sit there with my dad, trying to figure out how to clean up the water and get the iron out of the water. Designing water systems for industrial processes ties everything together. No matter what industry, there’s a need for strong understanding of water chemistry.