Industry Insight: Cleaning Water With Every Swim

Jan. 8, 2016

About the author: Cengiz Ozkan is professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering for the University of California, Riverside. He can be reached at [email protected]. Mihri Ozkan is professor of electrical and computer engineering for the University of California, Riverside. She can be reached at [email protected]. Michael Meyer is associate editor of WQP. Meyer can be reached at [email protected] or 847.954.7940.

The health of the environment is an issue that no one person can solve alone. But thanks to engineering professors Mihri and Cengiz Ozkan of the University of California, Riverside, people will soon be able to make their own small impact on the world’s water quality simply by taking a swim. The Ozkans’ “Sponge” material is designed to remove toxins from water, and in the near future it may be a part of the swimsuit you wear when you go for a dip. WQP Associate Editor Michael Meyer spoke with the Ozkans about this new technology. 

Michael Meyer: Please describe how the Sponge material works.  

Cengiz Ozkan: The Sponge material has been primarily developed to clean [water] from oil spills, a major problem arising from drilling in the ocean or from oil tankers getting into accidents, causing oil spills at different scales. The Sponge material is a multi-scale porous network of nanocarbons with pore dimensions at macrometer, micro-meter and nanometer scales. It is very highly hydrophobic, meaning it dislikes water, and it is also oleophilic, meaning it has great affinity to absorbing oil-like chemicals. Any oil-like contaminants inside the ocean can be absorbed inside the Sponge while you are swimming in the ocean. 

Meyer: Why did you choose to incorporate it into a swimsuit? 

Mihri Ozkan: We wanted to bring “healing of environment action” to a personal level, and to help to clean [water] while you are swimming, we thought, is a good starting point.

Meyer: How is the Sponge material cleaned?

Mihri Ozkan: Sponge material can be recycled 25 times based on initial laboratory tests, and could even do better. All the contaminants can be removed with a thermal process. Then the material can be reused again.

Meyer: How expensive is this material to produce?

Mihri Ozkan: Sugar is the starting precursor material used to make the Sponge material via thermal processing, which has been developed into a scalable process. Given the ease of materials processing and the low cost of the starting materials, the Sponge material is cheap and affordable, and it can be applied to diverse applications.

Meyer: Into what other applications do you believe the material can be effectively incorporated?

Cengiz Ozkan: A number of potential applications are being investigated, including cleaning of oil spills from water, as well as other decontamination applications, including chemicals that do not mix with water. We have already made successful demonstrations of cleaning various pollutants from water, including oil, chloroform and methylene blue. It can be extended to the removal of a diverse spectrum of contaminants.

Meyer: What overall impact do you believe the material can make?

Mihri Ozkan: Application of Sponge-type materials into wearable technology can help a person to become an environmentally conscious individual, which is terribly needed today. [In] the end, it is our responsibility to sustain and heal our environment for the next generations.

Meyer: When will the swimsuits be commercially available?

Mihri Ozkan: Together with our designer team, Eray/Carbajo, we are talking to potential investors to produce swimsuits for everyone.

About the Author

Michael Meyer

Photo by Chanon Pornrungroj/Ariffin Mohamad Annuar, courtesy University of Cambridge.
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