Researchers from Ben-Gurion University and the University of Illinois have developed new membranes

Research scientists hailing from Ben-Gurion University (BGU) in Beer-Sheva, Israel, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), Illinois, the United States (US) have created and developed a new ultrafiltration membrane that removes a significant amount of virus when treating municipal wastewater for drinking in cities experiencing water scarcity.

Present methods of membrane filtration need an exhaustive supply of energy to eliminate a decent amount of pathogenic viruses without using chemicals like chlorine – which has the potential to contaminate the water with disinfection by-products. The research scientists at BGU and UIUC cooperated with each other to explore the new approach for the elimination of virus pathogens, and published their findings in the current issue of Water Research.

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

The most common cause behind viral gastroenteritis in humans and nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea, is the norovirus – estimated to be the second leading cause behind gastroenteritis-associated mortalities. Another virus, the human adenovirus, is the cause of a broad range of illnesses that include bronchitis, diarrhoea, sore throats (or pharyngitis), pneumonia, pink eye (also known as conjunctivitis), bladder inflammation or infection (cystitis), neurological disease, inflammation of the intestines and stomach, fever, and the common cold.

During the course of the research, Professor Moshe Herzberg from the Department of Desalination and Water Treatment in the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at BGU and his team of researchers grafted a special “zwitterionic polymer hydrogel” coating onto a commercial ultrafiltration membrane. The hydrogel contains both negative and positive charges, and repulses the virus and does not allow them to approach and pass through the membrane, thus improving efficiency by weakening the virus accumulation on the upgraded filter surface. As a result, waterborne viruses have a much higher rate of elimination, including that of the human adenovirus and norovirus.

Professor Herzberg and his student and research assistant, Maria Piatkovsky, worked on this game-changing research along with Professor Thanh H. Nguyen and her student and research assistant, Ruiqing Lu, both from the Department of Chemical Engineering, UIUC; and Professor Dr Mathias Ulbricht, chair of Technical Chemistry II, of the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany.

“Utilising a simple graft-polymerisation of commercialised membranes to make viruses more comprehensive is a promising development for controlling filtration of pathogens in potable water reuse,” Professor Nguyen said.

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