No entry to viruses, thanks to Israeli-US team’s wastewater filter

Colds, diarrhea and worse can be prevented by hydrogel coating that bars contaminants from municipal water supplies

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative glass of water (Pixaby free images)
Illustrative glass of water (Pixaby free images)

Researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) said they have developed new ultrafiltration membranes that significantly improve the process of removing viruses from treated municipal wastewater used for drinking in water-scarce cities.

Current membrane filtration methods need intensive energy to adequately remove pathogenic viruses without using chemicals like chlorine, which can contaminate the water with disinfection byproducts.

The norovirus, for example, which can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, is the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis in humans, and is estimated to be the second leading cause of gastroenteritis-associated mortality. Human adenoviruses can cause a wide range of illnesses that include the common cold, sore throat, bronchitis, pneumonia, diarrhea, pink eye (conjunctivitis), fever, bladder inflammation or infection, inflammation of the stomach and intestines, and neurological disease, the researchers, Prof. Moshe Herzberg of BGU and Prof. Nguyen Thanh H. Nguyen of UIUC said in a statement.

“This is an urgent matter of public safety,” Herzberg and Nguyen said. “Insufficient removal of human Adenovirus in municipal wastewater, for example, has been detected as a contaminant in U.S. drinking water sources, including the Great Lakes and worldwide.”

In the study, Herzberg, of the Department of Desalination and Water Treatment in the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at BGU, and his group grafted a special hydrogel coating onto a commercial ultrafiltration membrane. The “zwitterionic polymer hydrogel,” as it is called, repels the viruses and does not allow it to approach or pass through the membrane. It contains both positive and negative charges and improves efficiency by weakening virus accumulation on the modified filter surface. The result was a significantly higher rate of removal of waterborne viruses, including human norovirus and adenovirus, the researchers said..

“Utilizing a simple graft-polymerization of commercialized membranes to make virus removal more comprehensive is a promising development for controlling filtration of pathogens in potable water reuse,” said Nguyen.

The research was published in the current issue of Water Research.

The project was supported by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the German-Israeli Water Technology Cooperation Program, which is funded by the Ministry of Science & Technology of Israel and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research of Germany.

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