Eliminating waterborne viruses with novel water purification technology

Researchers at Texas A&M University have developed a water purification method to remove and inactivate waterborne viruses.

With the help of sophisticated microscopy and computational analysis, a team at Texas A&M University have successfully validated a water purification technology that utilises electricity to eliminate and inactivate waterborne viruses.

A new approach to water purification

The researchers’ water purification strategy may offer another level of safety against pathogens that lead to gastrointestinal ailments and other infections in humans.

“There is always a need for new techniques that are better, cheaper and more effective at safeguarding the public against disease-causing microorganisms,” explained Shankar Chellam, an engineer at Texas A&M University. “The water purification technique investigated in this study is a promising strategy to kill even more viruses at the earliest stages of water purification.”

The research team has received funding from the US National Science Foundation and have published their novel findings in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Overcoming current challenges

“Electrocoagulation is a promising alternative to conventional chemical-based coagulation approaches,” added Christina Payne, a programme director in NSF’s Directorate for Engineering. “Through its single-step pathogen coagulation and inactivation process, minimising the need for chemical production and transportation, electrocoagulation may reduce the environmental impact and energy demands of wastewater treatment plants.”

Before it reaches homes, water undertakes various purification steps such as coagulation, sedimentation, filtration, and disinfection. Conventional coagulation techniques employ chemicals to activate the clumping of particles and microbes in untreated water. It is possible to remove the aggregates then once they settle as sediments. While this method is effective, Chellam noted that the chemicals used for coagulation are very acidic, thus meaning that their transport to treatment plants and their storage is challenging.

Electricity as an alternative

As an alternative to chemical-based coagulation, the team decided to look into whether a coagulation technique that utilises electricity is as efficient at removing microbes from water.

They used a surrogate of a nonenveloped virus, called MS2 bacteriophage. Their choice of microbes was influenced by the fact that MS2 bacteriophage shares structural similarities with many nonenveloped viruses that can endure in water following treatment and lead to disease in humans.

“The traditional multistep process of water purification has been there to ensure that even if one step fails, the subsequent ones can bail you out – a multiple barrier approach, so to speak,” Chellam concluded. “What we are proposing with electrocoagulation is process intensification, where coagulation and disinfection are combined in a single step before subsequent purification stages, to ensure better protection against waterborne pathogens.”

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