Nanotechnology enables low-cost water filter system

Low-cost sustainable water filter system – at Aslni Primary School, Tanzania

Dr Askwar Hilonga from the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science & Technology is one of 12 entrepreneurs shortlisted for the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. The 12 finalists will receive 6 months of training and mentoring support from business development and engineering experts, with an overall winner receiving £25,000 along with two runners-up who will be awarded £10,000 each.

Dr Hilonga has developed a new water filter system, integrating nanotechnology with sand-based water filtration to provide clean, safe drinking water. The process is affordable and sustainable and highly relevant in rural settings across Africa where access to clean water remains a huge challenge.

How did you come up with the concept?

“I was born in rural Tanzania (Gongali Village) and raised by a poor family. We were regularly suffering from water borne diseases because we could not afford the luxury of expensive bottled water.

When I graduated with my Ph.D from South Korea (specializing in nanotechnology), I asked myself an ethical question, “What does my Ph.D mean to my community in Tanzania which is still suffering from water borne diseases?”

So, now I am focused on developing nanomaterials that are suitable for water purification, and I am seeing commercial feasibility of this adventure.”

What were the drivers behind the concept?

“The drivers behind my concept are a mixture of social need, commercial feasibility, and technical capacity – motivated by my Institution’s motto, ‘Academia for Society and Industry’.”

What is the underpinning technology?

“The underpinning technology is the ability to manipulate nanomaterials to remove specific contaminants in water in order to make it suitable for drinking. For example, to synthesize nanomaterials to remove a specific heavy metal (such as copper, arsenic, etc.), or to modify it just for the removal of bacteria.

I currently have 30 publications on how to synthesize different kinds of nanomaterials by controlling various reaction conditions (for example, the reaction temperature, pH, reaction rate, order of adding precursors, type of precursors, drying temperature, heat treatment, etc.) All of these are done at a nano scale to improve the properties/performance of the final product while reducing the cost to make it affordable to under-served communities.”

What applications do you envisage for the technology?

“The primary application is the purification of drinking water in an affordable way so that poor rural communities are able to purchase water, or the filter itself. My end-products are nanofilters which have to be changed after filtering a specific amount of water, depending on the quality of the original water.”

What is the next stage of development for the technology?

“I am currently undergoing training and mentoring as part of being shortlisted for the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa Prize for Innovation. At the end of the six month period I expect the product and business model to have developed further, and I will later be looking to adopt nanofilters into other devices of water purification. For example, to be integrated into water vendors’ systems and commercial water filters.

In the future, I aim to develop an entire independent system, from filter case to water bottles.”

Image courtesy of RAE – Dr Hilonga holding the system, among children at the Aslni Primary School in Tanzania