San Antonio-based technology company Elequa recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for additional testing of its recently patented water treatment technology. According to the technology's academic and industry supporters, Elequa holds viable promise for the future of the global water crisis. And it's local.
Jesus Moreno patented Elequa, an electrocoagulation water treatment technology, in 2009 after spending five years extensively researching the separation and coagulation of pollutants via an electric current. Moreno accidentally realized this separation behavior while conducting water tests in northern Mexico, where he works on industrial equipment calibration.
“Sierra Mojada is a small town with very little water, and the water they have access to is contaminated with arsenic (a heavy metal). Since they don't have a treatment process to eliminate those metals, they have to drink it the way it is," Moreno said. "The few people that can afford to buy clean water in 20 liter jugs do so with a price of about 35 pesos ($2.70) per fill. That is a lot of money for a community that doesn't have access to many jobs.”
He quickly realized that while the technology works well at separating many types of pollutants from water, this system is also an inexpensive solution for municipalities with high levels of arsenic in their drinking water – like his Mexico home and many cities in the Southwestern United States.
Later, he was introduced to Luis Beltrán of San Antonio’s Belco Supply because of his specialization in industrial supplies. Once the two connected, Beltrán, with a background in water treatment, quickly saw Elequa’s long-term impact potential, and agreed to help market the technology stateside.
His son, Ryan Beltrán, joined the team and connected Elequa’s technology with Andrew Trickett, executive director of the San Antonio Clean Energy Incubator at UTSA. This has given the team the opportunity to conduct additional research in UTSA’s labs, and has since gained a slew of support from seasoned clean energy professionals, professors, and even Texas municipalities eager to implement the technology if funding is acquired through its Kickstarter campaign.
Inefficiencies of Traditional Water Treatment Systems
There are a handful of traditional treatment processes long-used to treat water impurities. Chemical treatment and membrane-technology are two common approaches. These processes tackle naturally occurring impurities like heavy metals (e.g., arsenic), and other pollutants like community and industrial wastewater and disaster-contaminated resources.
Because of the costs associated with chemically treated water and mechanical filtration processes, it’s impossible to deploy these treatments globally. Both types of treatment may effectively treat water for particular impurities, but both have serious inefficiencies that limit the impact they have on a large scale. Mechanical filtration only filters suspended solids of a certain size, free oil and grease. Chemical treatment requires the addition of sometimes hazardous chemicals that often lead to a labor-intensive and a sometimes messy post-treatment process.
“(These) forms use far more energy to push the water through a membrane, or use toxic chemicals as a form of treatment,” Trickett said.
Ryan Beltrán, general partner and manager at Elequa, adds, “Our current leading technology is reverse osmosis (RO). It cleans water very well. But it takes a lot of resources to achieve this. (The contaminants) are so microscopic that a brute force method is used to force only the clean water through a complex filtration system and hold back the tiny contaminate particles – which then must be unclogged by a rinse and sent down the drain with a high percentage of water. Meanwhile, RO strips water of its healthy minerals too.”
Long-Term Impact Potential
Unlike its expensive and sometimes inefficient predecessors, Elequa uses very little energy, is incredibly inexpensive to implement in comparison to other treatment options, can be added as an upgrade to existing water treatment systems and seems to have the opportunity to purify water in a more controlled way. For example, RO strips water of its natural minerals in its filtration process; Elequa’s electrocoagulation allows parameters to be set to isolate and preserve healthy minerals.
So, how does it work? As a specialized electrical current is delivered through the reactor, positively charged ions are released into the water causing negative pollutant particles to bond together.
Pollutants are much easier to remove in this coagulated (bonded) and insoluble state. From here, the pollutants are caught in a filter or pressed and dried into solid waste, avoiding drainage.
Les E. Shephard, institute director of UTSA's Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute (TSERI), says that Elequa’s electrocoagulation technology is “scalable, versatile and may be competitive with more widespread technologies.” He sees the impact opportunity deployable at multiple scales.
“I could readily envision electrocoagulation technology deployed in remote regions of the U.S. – like Indian reservations – or elsewhere around the world, like remote regions of Mexico, where water demands are fairly limited and some form of power is available," he said. "It can be used remotely with renewable energy sources and storage, becoming an integrated system for small volumes of treated water, and can be readily tailored to optimize water treatment based on contaminant type.”
Trickett agrees: “(Elequa) could be cheaper to deploy because other forms [of treatment] use far more energy to push the water through a membrane. Or they use toxic chemicals as a form of treatment. Because there are no chemicals, (Elequa) is non-toxic, while using less energy and is cheaper to run.”
In addition to the cost saving opportunities, remote deployment potential and the use of less energy and literally no chemicals, Elequa’s electrocoagulation technology has the potential to be used across many applications. Arsenic and other heavy metals are important examples of how it can be applied to purify dangerous drinking water supplies, but experts agree this type of technology could address numerous other types of water issues as well.
Some applications Elequa hopes to address are post-wastewater, fracking wastewater reuse, disaster relief, data center and office building cooling tower consumption, municipal supply and industrial water treatment.
While promising, Elequa technology still has far more research to conduct and solid supportive data to collect, With the support of clean energy professionals like Shephard and Trickett, along with access to UTSA’s labs, there’s a solid foundation of brilliant, experienced minds and state-of-the-art facilities to uncover all the ways Elequa technology could forever impact the global water crisis.
Ryan Beltrán says, “It can save lives but also help a city in drought better utilize its water resources. Both are very important. It's hard to weigh health concerns against overall water resource savings. We aim to tackle both.”
Trickett believes this technology could “open up a world for new supplies in places that are pretty stressed for water supplies,” but realizes there’s more research to be done. He says, “Most of the early testing will be done at UTSA in a lab environment, but as soon as things look promising, we’ll line up pilot testing – in a real operational environment.”
Shephard concludes, “The simplicity of the system after it’s deployed has great appeal but additional testing is required to more fully understand reliability issues and effectiveness under varying conditions.”
Elequa’s Kickstarter Campaign
The campaign launched June 20 with the hope to raise enough funds to continue its research in different application areas, and expanding into different university’s labs across the country. As part of its campaign, students are invited to sign up for the opportunity to be co-sponsored. For each $5,000 raised, a student will receive Elequa’s technology to conduct their own research at their university’s facilities, expanding the application possibilities and data. As of this morning, July 2, the Kickstarter campaign has raised $3,023, and has 45 days to raise the remaining $46,977 it needs to continue its research efforts.
The Kickstarter campaign is also using local businesses to produce its rewards, such as the specially designed t-shirt by local artist Travis Spangler, and the photographic prints shot by Ryan Beltrán. Those who pledge $500 or more may attend a dinner catered by Riff Raff Supper Club with the Elequa team at San Antonio’s historic Hot Wells, which includes a tour of the grounds and a live demo of the system.
Hello Studio, located within the Blue Star Art Complex, will host Ryan Beltrán's first photography show on July 18, 7-10 p.m. Proceeds from the print sales go to Elequa's research.
Elequa will also be hosting a free, public event at Geekdom at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 25. There will be beer, wine, snacks, a product demo and Q&A session. Geekdom is located downtown on the 11th floor of the Weston Centre at 112 E. Pecan Street.
Ashley M. Halligan is a a freelance journalist and professional wanderer. She’s launching a travel and music site in July called Contemporary Pilgrim, and is currently rambling around Texas with a notebook, a camera and an itchy writin' hand. She’s had work published and featured in many publications, both local and national, including Austin Lifestyle Magazine, VentureBeat, Reuters, NPR StateImpact, The New York Times, Scientific American, Manner & Lane, The Anti Tourist and many more. She’s covered stories ranging from Lionel Richie’s take on Austin and SXSW to venture capital investing trends in digital cleantech to global travel tales. Follow her adventures on Facebook or Twitter: @wildflowerpixie.