Dip this new nanotech water bottle into a polluted river in India, or the sludge-filled Gowanus Canal in New York, and you can immediately start drinking. Nano-scale holes in the bottle’s filter let clean water through, while trapping microbes like E. coli and salmonella.
Nanochemists and engineers spent about 15 years developing the filter, starting at a lab at Stony Brook University. Now, the startup bringing it to market hopes it will transform access to clean water around the world–especially for the 3 billion people who can’t easily pour a safe cup of water.
In the past, water purification tech has often relied on electricity, cumbersome pumps, or chemicals like chlorine, iodine, and bromine. Some of the chemicals taste bad; others are just unhealthy in large quantities. The methods also take time, so someone can’t start drinking right away.
“This is the first time someone’s developed a filter where you can just put the water in and drink it immediately,” says Victor Hwang, CEO of Liquidity, the company making the new bottle. “As if it was just a normal water bottle. It suddenly changes the whole paradigm of clean water from something that you have to make a real effort to do to something that just feels very smooth and natural.”
The technology isn’t intended only for the developing world or people on camping trips. The company points out that 60% of the water pipe infrastructure in the U.S. will be substandard in five years, with potential repairs estimated at as much as $1 trillion. It’s possible it would cost less to purify water inside homes, rather than trying to rebuild every pipeline.
While something like a Brita pitcher uses a carbon filter, the new technology combines both carbon (which can remove odors, chlorine, and potentially some heavy metals) with the nanotech membrane. The new membrane removes bacteria, something that a carbon filter alone can’t do.
When the filter fills up with microbes, it stops working, so someone won’t accidentally keep drinking. “Imagine a web of fibers, and things getting trapped in there,” says Hwang. “As more and more things get trapped, the bad stuff you’re trying to keep out, it actually will just slow down. That’s its own way of alerting you not to use it anymore.”
The company plans to develop a full line of products, but is beginning by launching its “Naked Filter” portable bottle on Kickstarter as a way to raise final funds for production and to prove that the technology works. “This bottle was a way for us to show that we could build this,” Hwang says. “It’s a demonstration to the world that this is a revolutionary technology that we can do today.”
There’s at least one challenge, though: Like other filters, while this may keep plastic water bottles out of the trash, it also creates some trash of its own. The gunk-filled nano-filter can’t be recycled, and in the current model, it has to be replaced every month.