Interview with Tim Harper
The Water Network team had a great opportunity to interview Tim Harper . Tim is the CEO of G2O Water and a world renown technology entrepreneur. We had a talk with him about the use of graphene in the water treatment industry and graphene membranes as an innovative new water treatment method. Read on to find out what the future trends in the water treatment industry will be.
Q1 - Congratulations for getting recognised as “Early-stage company whose technology could change the future of the water market”. It would be great to know the journey of G2O, how was the company started?
I have been looking at new technologies to help alleviate water problems for over a decade, but they all faced the same basic problem, they were not scalable. While it was possible to create a mesh of nanofibers or nanotubes in a lab environment and show that it was an effective filtration medium, it was almost always impossible to produce this in large areas and at costs that would allow adoption by the water industry.
Eventually, I came across the work of Dr. Miao Yu at the University of South Carolina who was creating graphene coatings. What impressed me immediately was the fact that he was coating existing membranes, not creating new ones, and that the coating process was simple and scalable.
Once we had the technology we then needed to form the right team to commercialize it. I brought Andrew Greenaway, former strategy director at Sheffield Insulation Group PLC, and Jeremy Pelczer the former CEO of Thames Water onto the company board and between them they contribute a huge amount of business experience and a deep understanding of the water industry.
At the moment we are putting a new funding round together, which should take us all the way to profitability, and talking to a wide range of potential partners.
Q2 - How did you get interested in the concept of Graphene and it’s use in water filtration?
There are many groups around the world working on graphene for gas and water filtration. The basic idea is that if you have a thin enough material with pores the right size then water will simply pass straight through what is effectively a molecular sieve and require hardly any pressure differential. Unfortunately, there are huge challenges in creating the correct pore sizes, and then supporting the graphene on a material that would allow its use as a real world filter. Perhaps the biggest barrier to that approach is that no one has yet figured out how to create the large areas of single layer graphene needed for these applications.
Q3 - Could you tell us in detail about the development of Graphene Membranes, how it started and where it’s going?
Just to be absolutely clear, we don’t make membranes from graphene. We take existing RO and UF membranes from existing manufacturers and coat them with our proprietary graphene dispersion. When we do that two very interesting things happen. Firstly the graphene wraps itself around the membrane material and creates hydrophilic channels between the graphene layers. Secondly it creates a hierarchical roughness on the membrane surface that results in a superoleophobic surface.
We have tested the coating on a wide variety of membranes, PES, PA, CN, Ceramic and they all exhibit the same effect.
We are now at the stage where we know the technology works and is scalable so the R&D phase is over. Our current lab work is now focused entirely on supporting our commercialization strategy.
Q4 - According to you, what advantages do Graphene Membranes have compared to other Water Treatment and Desalination methods?
When we coat the membranes with graphene the pure water flux increases by anything between three and a hundred times. That means that for a given set of conditions (pressure, area, time) more water gets through the membrane. Because the membranes resist fouling they also require less cleaning which both increases the membrane lifetime and reduces downtime. This also allows membranes to be used in applications where fouling would preclude their use.
But the best validation comes from our partners and customers who all agree that it is a technology with the potential to revolutionize the use of membrane filtration in both current and new markets.
Q5 - How do Graphene Membranes filtration method reduce energy costs?
Simply by allowing far higher pure water fluxes. Depending on the application it is possible to either maintain the same pressure and vastly increase the throughput or reduce the pressure to obtain the same throughput.
Q6 - Can you tell us about the application of Graphene Membranes in Ultrafiltration?
Much of our work to date has focused on UF. We have identified a number of clear opportunities in oil-water separation, especially in the oil and gas industry where over 80% of the fluids pumped from wells can be water. Separating oil-water emulsions is a relatively straightforward task for membranes using our coatings.
We also recently won a $1m grant from Innovate UK to develop smart water filters for the nuclear industry where contaminated water is a major issue. At the same time, we are getting interest from a wide variety of industries where separation is an issue, including paper making and pharmaceuticals.
Q7 - Would you like to share the advantages of using Graphene Membranes in Reverse Osmosis with TWN members?
In RO, the most significant cost is energy. By requiring less pressure so remove salt the cost of the water produced can be cut dramatically. Some researchers have claimed that energy costs could be reduced by up to 99.9%.
Q8 - Do you think that Graphene Membranes technology can change the existing face of the world water supply? Is the technology cost effective?
The huge reductions in required energy do have the ability to make a major impact on the global water supply. Less energy means that smaller plants powered entirely by renewable energy become possible. We are currently working through the World Economic Forum to evaluate the feasibility using our technology in water treatment plants that are entirely human powered for remote off-grid communities.
While graphene is still a relatively expensive material, we only require small amounts that are applied as a very thin coating so the technology is highly cost effective.
Q9 - What are your future goals for G2O Water? How do you plan to reach the global market with this fantastic technology?
Our primary strategy is to license to existing membrane manufacturers for specific applications. It is a technology that for a relatively low cost creates a dramatic improvement in membrane performance. The improvement is so great that we expect rapid market penetration.
Q10 - Would you like to share your experience of “Working and Launching a new technology” in the market with aspiring entrepreneurs in water sector?
Perhaps the hardest thing for anyone with a technology background to do is to forget about the technology. If you start with the technology it can be difficult to get market traction. Starting with the unmet need allows you to then go out and identify a technology that may be able to address that need. The world is doing more and better scientific research than at any point in history, so the technology is usually out there somewhere.
Secondly you can never underestimate the value of a good team. At G2O, we have a great management team that covers technology, markets, business and finance. That allows me to make the best use of my skills in technology commercialization knowing that the corporate and financial issues are in safe hands.
Money also helps, but if you have the market, the technology and the team then it shouldn’t be an issue.