Peter Holme Jensen, Claus Hélix-Nielsen and Danielle Keller

Energy-efficient water purification

Technical field
Chemical engineering
The high-tech electronics industry has developed an unquenchable thirst for “ultrapure” water (UPW), but conventional water filtration methods prove highly energy consuming and unsustainable. Modelled on naturally occurring water-purifying proteins, so-called aquaporins, the water filters invented by Danish inventor Holme Jensen and his team provide an energy-efficient method for supplying ultrapure water on an industrial scale.

Winners of the European Inventor Award 2014 in the category SMEs

The invention utilises the natural movement of water between individual cells in nature and the characteristics of the proteins facilitating this movement. The proteins, called aquaporins, allow for water to transfer between cell membranes, all the while blocking the passage of contaminants such as salts and minerals. The inventors incorporated this principle into a “biomembrane” technology.

Conventional water filtration methods channel contaminated water through a series of increasingly fine-pored filters at intense pressures; a highly energy-consuming process, further complicated by the potential of pores becoming clogged. Without the need for external and energy-intensive hydrostatic pressure, the invention uses the process of “forward osmosis” for transporting water molecules through a membrane featuring aquaporins integrated in a backing layer.

Societal benefit

An estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide have no access to clean drinking water. At the same time, industrial demand not just for clean but specifically ultrapure water (UPW) is steadily increasing. The Aquaporin filters are already providing an energy-efficient method for purifying water into UPW for industrial uses. In the next step, the technology can be applied to large-scale purification plants to desalinate seawater and purify industrial wastewater – a considerable contribution to global drinking water supplies.

Economic benefit

The Aquaporin membrane not only produces pure water – it produces ultrapure water for the semiconductor and photovoltaic industries, where even the tiniest particles could damage components in the nanometre range.

The global water purification market is currently estimated at EUR 271 billion, with an annual growth rate of 4-5%. A market share of 21-22%, or EUR 58 billion, is generated by the sale of equipment, technology and treatment chemicals; also including water treatment technology like Aquaporin’s biomembrane filters. In 2011, Aquaporin A/S partnered up with German company Membrana GmbH, one of the leading providers of microporous membranes for medical use worldwide, with the aim of integrating the Aquaporin technology.

How it works

Aquaporin proteins rely on forward osmosis to selectively and quickly transport water molecules through their membranes. This process uses kinetic energy to move water from a region of high solution concentration down the pressure gradient to a lower one. Think of a waterfall – gravity draws the water down from a height – moving it from a higher to a lower area. Only water can pass through the channels; any other molecules or ions may not go through.

Biomimetic membranes such as the ones invented by Jensen and team mimic the natural water-channelling properties of aquaporin proteins by incorporating them in an active layer over a highly porous teflon support. The narrow folds or pores of the membranes use osmosis to allow pure water to pass through. Although the water molecules can only pass in “single file”, progress is extremely swift, with rates measured at one billion molecules per channel per second.

The inventor

Born in Aarhus, Denmark, Peter Holme Jensen is a protein chemist and founder of biotech company Aquaporin, together with Morten Østergaard Jensen near Copenhagen. After years of working for pharmaceutical companies, Jensen set out to pursue his own invention. His motivation: new technological achievements have to be modelled on nature. When a friend inspired Jensen to look into aquaporins, the inventor had found what he had been looking for: a self-sufficient system that exists in nature as a potential basis for an invention with practical applications all the way up to an industrial scale.

Did you know?

Applications of the natural power of aquaporins are not only limited to water filtration. The clean and powerful process could be an energy source for the future. If developed further for use in osmotic power plants, the Aquaporin technology could deliver sustainable electricity. This is of particular interest for countries that, due to their geographical location, are lacking other options with regards to sustainable energy resources. The inventors are currently investigating options to try their concept in pilot projects.

Patent numbers:


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