NEWT: Trailblazing solutions to the global water crisis

We live on a blue planet where most of the surface is water. Yet it is sobering to know that only 3 percent is fresh water. Of that 3 percent, two-thirds are out of our reach or polluted.

This finite resource continues to be threatened by a growing world population, climate change, and increasing environmental pollution. A powerful confluence of potentially disastrous factors—pushing us deeper into a global water crisis.

According to the United Nations, half of the planet will suffer from water scarcity by 2050, including severe water stress by 2030. Population growth and climate shifts are threatening the entire water cycle. Changes in precipitation are depleting rivers and aquifers. The ground is becoming arid in many areas affecting the capacity to store water.

Beyond water scarcity, another major threat is spiralling water pollution, including from “forever chemicals” used in products since the 1940s. These chemicals are strong bonds of synthetic per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals known as PFAS. Through their use in consumer products, including in food packaging, PFAS end up in the water and linger in our bodies, including in mothers’ milk and babies’ vascular systems. Studies show PFAS can interfere with the developmental functions of children. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently introduced strict laws to control the level of these chemicals in drinking water. The military is also taking action by requiring PFAS-free firefighting foams.

On top of climate change, pollution, and increasing demand—our nation’s municipal water systems require urgent modernization to provide safe water. Some components of these systems date back to the 1800s, the majority built in the 1970s. Studies show at least 21 million people in the U.S. drink water that violates federal safety standards. Our infrastructure has been neglected and underfunded for many years. What we filter is not solely determined by health studies. It is also a decision based on economics and cost-benefit analysis. Multiple public health crises have already happened (think Flint, Michigan), with more on the horizon unless we deploy affordable and reliable technology.

  • How do we face such a complex and layered crisis? While vexing, solutions are available if we work together. Researchers at the Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment Center (NEWT) are developing solutions through convergence research across many disciplines and varied stakeholders. NEWT is a community of dedicated and passionate individuals motivated to protect human life through the next generation of water treatment systems. The NEWT Alliance includes four academic institutions – Rice University, Arizona State University, University of Texas–El Paso, and Yale University. With its headquarters at Rice University, this National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center has been discovering new state-of-the-art materials that catalyze the development of off-grid water purification systems since its inception in 2015.

NEWT focuses on a critical part of the solution by developing water technology that is more efficient and decentralized. Many future water systems must be decentralized to avoid significant capital costs and use resources more wisely. Water systems will also need to be smaller and easily installed in off-grid locations. NEWT filtration devices are point-of-entry, making it possible for people to filter water in their homes with smaller, more powerful, and less expensive units that are easier to deploy. These systems can meet multiple fit-for-purpose needs, from providing people with drinking water to delivering ultrapure water for the semiconductor industry.

NEWT’s trailblazing scientists work with matter at a near-atomic scale. This scale allows for developing “fit-for-purpose” water filters, a much cheaper and less wasteful method to filter water. Pollutants of concern are filtered precisely and efficiently without the cost and waste associated with traditional filters that tackle all the elements in water comprehensively, including the ones that are not hazardous or beneficial. NEWT imagines a future where human activity is more beneficial to communities and the planet. Nano-enabled water systems will allow the recycling of valuable nutrients and metals in water.

NEWT is a one-stop shop research center that works to develop new water systems from the ground up. NEWT members are experts in every stage of water system development and design. From thinking through the fundamental aspects of technology design to engineering the components necessary to build systems—NEWT can develop unique technologies and ensure they work. These systems undergo techno-economic analysis and evaluation to examine costs, benefits, risks, and uncertainties.

The overarching, cross-cutting research theme for the NEWT center is safety and sustainability. NEWT conducts life-cycle assessments and undergoes certification processes through the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure technologies are safe for people and the communities they serve. Technical, societal and regulatory barriers are part of the review process for each project. To this end, NEWT teams study technology impacts, acceptability and appropriateness for a wide range of populations and communities that are potential users of NEWT solutions.

NEWT’s efficient modular water purification systems are:

  1. Easy to set up and can tap unconventional sources to provide humanitarian water or emergency response.
  2. Cost-effective, efficient, and recyclable.
  3. Developed to be accessible to those who need it most, especially people in poor rural communities.
  4. Able to support industries that need to filter and recycle wastewater.

In its first eight years of operation, NEWT has transcended the complexity of working across disciplines and institutions to build innovative solutions to help solve the global water crisis. 

NEWT’s scientific and collaborative outcomes include: 

Spearheading research to fight persistent and pervasive “forever chemicals” in water

NEWT has led efforts to efficiently and thoroughly remove harmful PFAS chemicals from water using the sun’s plentiful ultraviolet light and hardened crystal compounds. These types of photocatalytic degradation filters also make filtration cheaper by reducing the number of expensive materials needed to build them, allowing NEWT to transform the economics of water treatment. 

Wielding solar energy to make drinking water from the sea

NEWT is finding ways to filter ocean water efficiently, the water we have plenty of. NEWT has partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy to devise ways to desalinate water off-grid. NEWT uses efficient membranes to capture vapor from salt water. Membrane technology reduces energy costs and provides better efficiency when compared to traditional methods, providing water wherever needed.

Protecting human life through sewage treatment

NEWT is working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve greywater treatment. NEWT research and development of point-of-source treatment of urine and greywater will help address the sanitation needs of disadvantaged populations globally. The center has also built prototypes at Yale University to demonstrate NEWT water treatment technologies for humanitarian use. The vision is to install the units with the United Nations to provide solar water disinfection in small ecological dwellings (3.6 billion people lack safe sanitation).

Helping make industrial activities cleaner

NEWT also develops systems to treat and reuse industrial wastewater in remote locations. These systems are making energy production more sustainable with less water footprint. The NEWT systems also increase efficiency by controlling fouling and scaling in industrial water systems.

Collaborating with industry to foster real-world solutions

The NEWT Industry/Practitioner Membership Program fosters ‘win-win’ collaborations to drive transformational research and industrial outcomes in the United States and worldwide. NEWT has established unique resources for its industry members, providing a collaborative environment whereby the expertise of all members can converge to develop next-generation affordable, mobile, modular, and high-performance water purification systems.

Developing efficient mobile units to test cutting-edge technology

NEWT has built mobile water system test units that allow their project teams to improve the performance of systems and gather data about cost, safety and sustainability. The mobile units also support NEWT industrial partners via sponsored projects and the center’s educational and outreach goals.

Envisioning a better future by addressing challenging research questions

NEWT promotes creative thinking and provides unique opportunities for its members to make discoveries and achieve breakthrough results. This culture of growth and creativity, coupled with world-class laboratories and facilities, allows NEWT to be agile and expedite discoveries. NEWT members are thinking about the future with solutions at the cutting edge of science, including imagining a future where we can produce water from hydrogen, methane, and the atmosphere. Researchers at NEWT are also working on technologies that would allow new ways to recycle by mimicking biological processes to recover valuable elements.

Developing workforce, nurturing community, promoting unbound intellectual curiosity 

The NEWT community thrives on problem-solving through rigorous science and cross-disciplinary collaborations. NEWT provides university students and postdocs valuable multidisciplinary training, broad networking with faculty, alumni, industry, community leaders, international experiences, entrepreneurship guidance, and government relations. NEWT is breaking silos and building lasting collaborations. Student members have the opportunity to help lead the center’s work and fuel their passion with myriad avenues of research and support so that they can build their ideas from the ground up. NEWT’s diversity and inclusion efforts strive to maintain an enriching culture of excellence by acknowledging, educating, appreciating, and nurturing diversity. NEWT seeks to empower researchers from varied backgrounds to synergize and solve problems through creativity and innovation.

The NEWT Center has helped form multiple startup companies, turning research and development efforts into growing businesses:

  • SolMem is an award-winning company providing solar power desalination water systems to communities needing fresh water. SolMem treats water with fewer chemicals and energy, providing water to communities and industries at off-grid locations where conventional water sources are unavailable or limited.
  • H2Optic Insights ™ develops optical fiber technologies for water treatment applications, using light to prevent biofilm formation on surfaces or remove target contaminants from water. The company is currently developing technology for NASA to control biofilm growth in the International Space Station.  

NEWT water purification systems will become one of the cornerstones of global water security. This vital technology, combined with nature-based solutions, support for local and Indigenous knowledge, and the sustainable management and protection of water, will allow us to solve the global water crisis. NEWT needs your support to help deliver the full scope of its lifesaving technologies. Investing in NEWT means investing in human health and productivity. The center aims to grow its partnerships with stakeholders in the coming years, including at the international level with other research centers and the philanthropic community. 

We hope you will join us.

NEWT group photo