Paper produced at WMU could provide clean water for millions

contact: Cheryl Roland
| WMU News
Woman filtering water.

An example of how the filter can be used (Photo credit: Folia Water)

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Paper technology with the potential to provide clean drinking water to millions at a cost of just pennies a day has been successfully produced on a pilot scale at Western Michigan University this fall and may be on its way to becoming an international tool to prevent disease.

Paper filtering technology developed in research labs at McGill and Carnegie Mellon universities and the University of Virginia was brought to WMU this fall by Folia Water of Pittsburgh to test the feasibility of scaling the technology to major production. The technology is based on centuries-old knowledge about the antimicrobial properties of silver, and it involves the production of paper with silver nanoparticles embedded in it. The paper will be packaged in "Safe Water Books," with instructions in the local language. Each page of the Safe Water book is a water filter capable of killing the viruses and bacteria in the water that passes through it.

The trial run in WMU's celebrated paper pilot plants was successful, and the paper rolls produced are being converted into books and being readied for distribution.

"Those rolls are already sold, and we'll be shipping books as soon as they are converted," says Dr. Cantwell Carson, Folia's chief technical officer, who attended the WMU trials. "The WMU paper plant has played a critical role in the development of our company and our technology."

That technology, Cantwell notes, could provide clean and safe water to the 1.8 billion people worldwide whose water is contaminated by fecal coliform bacteria and other diseases. A page from a Folia book can clean up to 100 liters of water at a cost of less than a penny per day with no heat or electricity or need for a pump. The filters are recyclable and biodegradable.

Since 2013, the technology behind the Folia Filters has been tested in South Africa, Ghana, Honduras, Bangladesh, Kenya and Haiti, showing repeatedly that they can clean even the most polluted water and eliminating over 99 percent of bacteria. Each filter "page" can last for weeks and each "book" could last for about a year.

The Folia Filter technology was originally developed by Dr. Theresa Dankovich during her doctoral research at McGill University. She continued work on the concept during her postdoctoral work at the University of Virginia and Carnegie Mellon. Now one of the co-founders of Folia Water with Cantwell Carson and Dr. Jonathan Levine, she serves as its chairwoman and chief scientist.

Dankovich says she originally set out to develop a product to help clean the environment, but quickly realized how important the tool would be to provide safe water supplies.

"I hope that these filters will one day help improve the health of millions of people around the world," she told the Washington Post in 2015.

WMU Pilot Plants Manager Lon E. Pschigoda says his facility's role in development of the filters was made possible by the caliber of its equipment and the technical expertise of its staff. This fall's trial involved several attempts to embed the silver using different plant techniques.

"By utilizing our pilot paper machine, Folia was able to combine several steps in the production process into one continuous process," Pschigoda says. "The flexibility of the equipment and the ingenuity of the operators at our pilot plant helped this trial become a success."

Folia Water

Based in Pittsburgh, Folia Water's goal is to provide clean water to as many as 1 billion people for less than a penny per day. The company's Safe Water Book is both a water filter and an instruction manual for why clean water is important. The concept was recognized by Time magazine as one of the top 100 inventions of 2015 and won the Design Intelligence Award and Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) Global Award for Water in 2016.

WMU Pilot Plants

The WMU Pilot Plants provide workforce and facility solutions for research, product development and education. The plants serve both the public and educational communities within the paper, printing and allied industries. Through public partnerships, the plants provide a valued workforce supplement as well as open access to pilot plant facilities and personnel.

For more news, arts and events, visit wmich.edu/news.