|Ottawa Student May Hold Secret to Water For All|
June 5, 2008
Mohammed Rasool Qtaisha knows what it's like to be thirsty.
The 29-year-old chemical engineering PhD student at the University Ottawa grew
up in Jordan, where water shortages were a way of life. And his experience is
shared by millions of others around the world.
""The government gives us warning, of course. But the water would be off for
days, sometimes two, three days per week, so people would have to prepare by
storing water," he said.
But as populations increase and shortages become more frequent, lack of water
isn't just a poor nation's problem any more. At least 36 U.S. states are
expected to face shortages within the next five years, according to U.S.
government estimates, and by 2025, nearly 50 per cent of the world's population
will live in water-stressed areas, according to the UN.
Mohammed Rasool Qtaishat (right), standing here with his mentor David Mann at
the 2008 Ottawa Technology Venture Challenge, won top prize for developing a
technology that turns seawater into clean, drinking water much more efficiently
than is available today.
In recent years, nations have started privatizing or exporting fresh water,
placing a value on the life staple like any other precious commodity.
But some people aren't waiting for disaster to strike before taking action.
Inspired by his circumstances, Mr. Qtaishat founded Water For All with the aim
of developing a new water technology to turn seawater into clean, drinking water
on a large scale.
Current desalination technology extracts drinking water from seawater through
several filtering steps and something called reverse osmosis, in which salt
water is passed through a polymer membrane, separating solute from solvent. The
main problem is that because sodium chloride is such a small particle, the
process is slow and very energy intensive.
In 2004, Mr. Qtaishat approached the Middle East Desalination Research Centre in
Oman to fund his startup, called Water for All, and presented his method for
developing a far more efficient way of turning seawater into drinking water. The
centre was so impressed, they offered him a scholarship to come to Canada and
develop his technology.
Although Mr. Qtaishat's solution is top secret while the patent is still
pending, he says refining the process is all about the type of material used in
the membrane. With this new material, his prototype is able to run on solar
panels and produce 50 kilograms of water per metre square of the membrane per
hour. That is 600 to 700 per cent more efficient than current technology, which
produces about seven to eight kilograms per metre per hour.
But Mr. Qtaishat is up against stiff competition. General Electric has a large
water purification division looking into similar technology and the U.S.-based
National Science Foundation recently announced a $2.5-million grant to the
University of Michigan to assemble a crack team of experts to study the same thing.
"Everyone is looking at water treatment and making it more efficient. A number
of communities are already dependent on seawater desalination and then there are
the communities in coastal areas that are looking more and more to the sea,"
said to Peter Huck, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental
Engineering and NSERC Chair in Water Treatment at the University of Waterloo.
"Australia, for instance, has been in a drought situation for a number of years.
Australia is looking very seriously at this and it is being studied on both
coasts of the U.S."
But it's not just energy costs; according Mr. Huck, there are problems with
membrane technology and this is holding it back from being the answer to every
parched country's problems. Membranes become clogged — just like any filter —
and have to be flushed or cleaned frequently with chemicals.
Mr. Qtaishat says he is not worried.
Water For All has already attracted financial support, including $286,000 in
funding from the Middle East Desalination Research Center. Water purification
company Hyflux Ltd. in Singapore has shown interest in Water for All and Mr.
Qtaishat says he will be applying for funding from NRCan, CIDA and other
government organizations to get the pilot project going.
"All of this is just in the initial stages right now," he said. "After we prove
our concept (with the pilot project) then we can attract investors to go to market."
Qtaishat's business savvy has also won him the top prize of $10,000 at the
Ottawa Venture Tech Challenge in May.
"That entry had the idea with biggest scale. In terms of an environmental
perspective, water scarcity is something we took for granted, but more and more
it is on everyone's mind," said James Smith, Venture Technology Challenge chair
and partner with business law firm LaBarge Weinstein, However, George Yap,
program director for WaterCan, a charity dedicated to providing clean drinking
water to the world's poorest people, is skeptical this kind of technology will
solve the world's water woes.
He said that technology such as Mr. Qtaishat's would be good for more developed
countries as large, rich municipalities can invest in treatment programs. But
the poorest that lack clean water would probably not be able to afford the
technology, even if it runs on solar panels.
"Who would be able to run this technology? Where would they get extra parts to
fix it?" Mr. Yap said. "We have found time and time again that for the vast
majority of the poor and extremely poor, the mundane and simple technologies are
the ones that work best,"