By Haluk Alper, President & Chief Science Officer, MYCELX Technologies
Sustainable and Green are terms which are heard often these days. As occurs with nascent environmental language these terms have become usurped and ill – used as to the true intended meaning and the original motivations in creating the language in the first place.
This article will discuss some aspects of sustainability and greenness as relates to technology and materials in the environment.
Filtration technology is essential in maintaining the environment and would make an even greater contribution by adopting the principles of sustainability and greenness in material utilization and processing.
What does it mean to be green?
Although used interchangeably with concepts such as non-polluting, non-toxic or “organic” (whatever that is supposed to mean, after all Ebola is also “organic”) greenness is meant to represent processes which are self-sustaining and rejuvenating and the by-products of which (if any) are starting materials for associated or dependent processes in creating a closed loop.
Plants are the benchmark example.
Plants utilize carbon dioxide (C02) and water (H20) along with sunlight as the energy source to produce carbohydrates C (H20), and oxygen (02) as waste from the plants point of view. C02 + H20 ┬« plants ┬¼ animals, C (H20) + 02.
Animals (respirators) then use this “waste” oxygen to extract the sun energy stored in the carbohydrate (the plant body) in an exact reversal of the plant chemistry, regenerating the starting materials (C02 + H20) and the cycle starts again. Note that plants are dependent on being eaten in order to survive.
Our primitive understanding of chemistry has resulted in disturbing even this most elegant and sustainable arrangement. If anything is “green” and “sustainable” it should be the above and yet we expend 1.06 kcal for each 1.00 kcal of energy extracted from the system from farming. We use oil, gas, and coal to compensate for the additional energy required creating pollution and depleting resources.
The waste of energy and resources is due to violent manipulation (energetically speaking) of the system through the use of fertilizers and manufactured water resources instead of exploiting what the system is naturally inclined to do.
This is equally true of the way we produce materials such as synthetic polymers, which are critical to filtration as well as many other technologies. Synthetic polymers are usually sequentially constructed using toxic and dangerous starting materials requiring large amounts of external energy and creating pollutants as side product. They tend to be brittle, difficult to process, and do not generally possess the nuanced properties of natural polymers.
Conversely, nature exploits the tendency of complementary molecules to self-assemble with the driving force tending to be ambient thermodynamic conditions and creating no pollutants.
One example is DNA where the base pairs self-assemble to form the double helix by simply being in the same beaker. Drying oils are another example. Drying oils, such as seed and fish oils spontaneously crosslink in the presence of oxygen to form strong and elastic polymers. The complexity in conformation and nuanced properties is unmatched by and sequentially assembled synthetic polymers.
Another example is MYCELX chemistry and filters, which are a combination of synthetic and natural starting compounds which are self-assembled resulting in unique properties. The synthesis of the MYCELX polymer has 100% conversion and does not produce any side products (pollutants). Utilizing materials produced in this way greatly reduces the environmental footprint of any technology and affords properties not attainable through sequential assembly mechanism. To the best of the author’s knowledge, MYCELX is the first commercially available self-assembled polymer product on the market making the filtration industry one of the first to adopt and implement true green and sustainable chemistry.
Greenness and Sustainability in Water Processing
How do we clean water?
Technical water purification involves the use of chemicals and energy for processes to extract undesirable components from water.
The production of treatment chemicals and the chemicals themselves produce pollution. Energy is required to produce and operate R.O. membranes, ion exchange resins, etc., adding to the carbon footprint of the respective operations. Ideally, pollution remediation should not generate pollutants.
How do plants clean water?
Plants require very clean water in order to do photosynthesis but they do not have any of the water purification devices we do. How do they do it?
Answer Part 1
As it turns out, water is the ultimate self-organizing, self-assembling molecule. This self-assembled phase is known as the exclusionary zone, it is a liquid crystal, the fourth phase after gas, liquid, solid and exists at every single hydrophilic interface on earth. It can be observed as the meniscus at the top of your test tube or glass of water. It is called the exclusion zone because being a liquid crystal it is highly organized and even excludes protons from the disassociation of water resulting in measurable induced voltage between the meniscus and the body of the water. The existence of this phase of water is responsible for raindrops and thousands of other everyday phenomena we take for granted.
Due to its super organization this zone discharges all other impurities, including salts, particulate matter and organic compounds and always reforms. The thickness of the zone can be manipulated using only sunlight and complementary interfaces. In capillaries only this form of water is present.
Answer Part 2
Almost all of the water contained in plants is in capillaries and therefore is the fourth exclusionary meniscus phase. The pollutants are ejected by the action of the water entering the capillary. The plant can do a better job of cleaning the water than all of the technology mentioned above by exploiting the natural tendency of water to eject foreign compounds through formation of the exclusionary zone. This is probably also the reason chemists have never been able to achieve the disassociation of water using only sunlight. They have been working with liquid water whereas the plant works with liquid ice.
Sustainability relies on exploiting or mimicking what natural systems or molecules are thermodynamically driven to do. The key will be the ability to enter and exit natural physicochemical loops with a minimum of disturbance.
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