Rice University: NEWT: New One-Step Catalyst Converts Nitrates to Water and Air

Rice Water Air Nitrates 159751_webRice University’s indium-palladium nanoparticle catalysts clean nitrates from drinking water by converting the toxic molecules into air and water. Credit Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A simple, one-step catalyst could help yield cleaner drinking water with less nitrates.

A team from Rice University’s Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) Center have discovered that a catalyst made from indium and palladium can clean toxic nitrates from drinking water by converting them into air and water.

“Indium likes to be oxidized,” co-author Kim Heck, a research scientist at Rice, said in a statement. “From our in situ studies, we found that exposing the catalysts to solutions containing nitrate caused the indium to become oxidized.

“But when we added hydrogen-saturated water, the palladium prompted some of that oxygen to bond with the hydrogen and form water, and that resulted in the indium remaining in a reduced state where it’s free to break apart more nitrates,” she added.

In previous research, the researchers discovered that gold-palladium nanoparticles were not good catalysts for breaking apart nitrates. This led to the discovery of indium and palladium as a suitable catalyst.

“Nitrates are molecules that have one nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms,” Rice chemical engineer Michael Wong, the lead scientist on the study, said in a statement. “Nitrates turn into nitrites if they lose an oxygen, but nitrites are even more toxic than nitrates, so you don’t want to stop with nitrites. Moreover, nitrates are the more prevalent problem.

“Ultimately, the best way to remove nitrates is a catalytic process that breaks them completely apart into nitrogen and oxygen or in our case, nitrogen and water because we add a little hydrogen,” he added. “More than 75 percent of Earth’s atmosphere is gaseous nitrogen, so we’re really turning nitrates into air and water.”

Nitrates, which could also be a carcinogenic, are considered toxic to both infants and pregnant women.

Nitrate pollution is common in agricultural communities, especially in the U.S. Corn Belt and California’s Central Valley, where fertilizers are heavily used. Studies have shown that nitrate pollution is on the rise because of changing land-use patterns. 1-california-drought-farms

The Environmental Protection Agency regulates allowable limits both nitrates and nitrites for safe drinking water. In communities with polluted wells and lakes, that typically means pretreating drinking water with ion-exchange resins that trap and remove nitrates and nitrites without destroying them.

“Nitrates come mainly from agricultural runoff, which affects farming communities all over the world,” Wong said. “Nitrates are both an environmental problem and health problem because they’re toxic.

“There are ion-exchange filters that can remove them from water, but these need to be flushed every few months to reuse them, and when that happens, the flushed water just returns a concentrated dose of nitrates right back into the water supply.”

The researchers will now try to develop a commercially viable water-treatment system.

“That’s where NEWT comes in,” Wong said. “NEWT is all about taking basic science discoveries and getting them deployed in real-world conditions.

“This is going to be an example within NEWT where we have the chemistry figured out, and the next step is to create a flow system to show proof of concept that the technology can be used in the field,” he added.

The study was published in ACS Catalysis.


Army COE Creates New Energy Efficient ‘Graphene Oxide’ Water Filter at Commercial Scale

The Army Corps of Engineers have successfully created a usable prototype of a new type of water filter.

The membranes are made of a mixture of chitosan, a material commonly found in shrimp shells, and a new synthetic chemical known as “graphene oxide”. Graphene oxide is a highly researched chemical worldwide.

  According to the Army Corps, one problem encountered by scientists working with graphene oxide is not being able to synthesize the material on a scale that can be put to use.

“One of the major breakthroughs that we’ve had here is that with our casting process, we’re not limited by size,” explains Luke Gurtowski, a research chemical engineer working on the membranes.

These filters have been found to effectively remove a number of different contaminants commonly found in water.

Dr. Christopher Griggs is the research scientist in charge of overseeing development of the new membranes.

Dr. Griggs told us, “Anybody who’s experienced water shortages or has been concerned about their water quality, or any type of contaminants in the water, this type of technology certainly works to address that.”

Another challenged faced by conventional water filtering methods is maintaining high energy efficiency.

“It requires a lot of energy for the net driving pressure to force the water through the membrane,” Dr. Griggs explains. “…we’re going to have to look to new materials to try to get those efficiency gains, and so graphene oxide is a very promising candidate for that.”

The Engineer Research and Development Center currently has two patents associated with the new filters and hopes to apply them for both civil and military purposes in the near future. 

Rice University (NEWT) / China team use phage-enhanced nanoparticles to kill bacteria that foul water treatment systems

Clusters of nanoparticles with phage viruses attached find and kill Escherichia coli bacteria in a lab test at Rice University. 

Magnetic nanoparticle clusters have the power to punch through biofilms to reach bacteria that can foul water treatment systems, according to scientists at Rice University and the University of Science and Technology of China.
Magnetized viruses attack harmful bacteria: Rice, China team uses phage-enhanced nanoparticles to kill bacteria that foul water treatment systems.

Researchers at Rice and the University of Science and Technology of China have developed a combination of antibacterial phages and magnetic nanoparticle clusters that infect and destroy bacteria that are usually protected by biofilms in water treatment systems. (Credit: Alvarez Group/Rice University)

The nanoclusters developed through Rice’s Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) Engineering Research Center carry bacteriophages – viruses that infect and propagate in bacteria – and deliver them to targets that generally resist chemical disinfection.

Without the pull of a magnetic host, these “phages” disperse in solution, largely fail to penetrate biofilms and allow bacteria to grow in solution and even corrode metal, a costly problem for water distribution systems.

The Rice lab of environmental engineer Pedro Alvarez and colleagues in China developed and tested clusters that immobilize the phages. A weak magnetic field draws them into biofilms to their targets.

The research is detailed in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Environmental Science: Nano.
“This novel approach, which arises from the convergence of nanotechnology and virology, has a great potential to treat difficult-to-eradicate biofilms in an effective manner that does not generate harmful disinfection byproducts,” Alvarez said.

Biofilms can be beneficial in some wastewater treatment or industrial fermentation reactors owing to their enhanced reaction rates and resistance to exogenous stresses, said Rice graduate student and co-lead author Pingfeng Yu. “However, biofilms can be very harmful in water distribution and storage systems since they can shelter pathogenic microorganisms that pose significant public health concerns and may also contribute to corrosion and associated economic losses,” he said.

The lab used phages that are polyvalent – able to attack more than one type of bacteria – to target lab-grown films that contained strains of Escherichia coli associated with infectious diseases and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is prone to antibiotic resistance.

The phages were combined with nanoclusters of carbon, sulfur and iron oxide that were further modified with amino groups. The amino coating prompted the phages to bond with the clusters head-first, which left their infectious tails exposed and able to infect bacteria.

The researchers used a relatively weak magnetic field to push the nanoclusters into the film and disrupt it. Images showed they effectively killed E. coli and P. aeruginosa over around 90 percent of the film in a test 96-well plate versus less than 40 percent in a plate with phages alone.

The researchers noted bacteria may still develop resistance to phages, but the ability to quickly disrupt biofilms would make that more difficult. Alvarez said the lab is working on phage “cocktails” that would combine multiple types of phages and/or antibiotics with the particles to inhibit resistance.

Graduate student Ling-Li Li of the University of Science and Technology of China, Hefei, is co-lead author of the paper. Co-authors are graduate student Sheng-Song Yu and Han-Qing Yu, a professor at the University of Science and Technology of China, and graduate student Xifan Wang and temporary research scientist Jacques Mathieu of Rice.

The National Science Foundation and its Rice-based NEWT Engineering Research Center supported the research.

Researchers develop hybrid nuclear desalination technique with improved efficiency

3-newtechnologAssociate Professor I.M. Kurchatov and graduate student R.A. Alexandrov work at the research stand of water purification. Credit: National Research Nuclear University

Lack of fresh water requires development of new desalination methods, including advanced nuclear desalination and water treatment and recycling; requirements for drinking water and other uses may be different.Desal-Hadera--Israel-2


To improve environmental safety and desalination technology, it is necessary to solve a global scientific and technological problem—the creation of an integrated water supply system based on the use of new high-efficiency desalination methods such as nuclear membrane desalination or hybrid technologies. These methods should be combined with recycling and treatment of residues to a level that corresponds with environmental requirements.

The majority of modern desalination technologies are based on distillation of thermal energy, including nuclear desalination, or using desalination membranes (reverse osmosis and electrodialysis membranes). In the process of distillation, salt water is boiled, and produced steam leaves the system and is condensed as fresh water. If a nuclear reactor is used as the heat source, the method is called nuclear desalination.

The membrane method of reverse osmosis is based on the filtering of salt water under the influence of differential pressure across a semipermeable membrane allowing water molecules and excluding salts; the pressure differential should be more than the so-called osmotic pressure (~ 30 atm. for seawater). In membrane electrodialysis, ions penetrate through the so-called ion-exchange membranes, and fresh water remains in the channel.

These membrane methods can be used in conjunction with nuclear desalination (hybrid desalination technologies), i.e., they can be added to existing nuclear facilities, where there is a relatively cheap access to thermal energy.

For the normal functioning of desalination plants, quality of the source water must meet certain strict requirements. This entails the need for a pre-treatment system, the cost of which is sometimes two to three times more than the cost of the itself.

Scientists from the National Research Nuclear University MEPhI (Russia) have developed a new technology and technological schemes for a pretreatment unit taking into account data on the composition of pollutants, salinity and performance of water treatment systems. It is based on the reagent methods with hydrodynamic activation of the process of pollutant withdrawal in coagulation, flocculation and adsorption, which reduces the unit’s size and cost. Moreover, the majority of the sparingly soluble salts can be removed in the pretreatment unit, which increases the efficiency of the system as a whole.

From the pre-water treatment unit, salt water flows into the desalination unit, a very energy-intensive process. Hybrid desalination schemes are proposed to reduce the energy consumption of the desalination process. These schemes use distillation and membrane methods in combination, to produce both drinking water and process water.

In addition, the project proposes the development of an integrated technological system of recycling and desalination systems to reduce environmental burdens and improve the energy efficiency of the system as a whole.

The results are intended to be used in complex projects of the State Corporation Rosatom, in particular, in relation to nuclear power plants in Egypt, where it is planned to realize a nuclear technology.

Explore further: Drinking water from the sea using solar energy


Reusable carbon nanotubes could be the water filter of the future, says RIT study

Carbon NT Water Filter 136842_web


A new class of carbon nanotubes could be the next-generation clean-up crew for toxic sludge and contaminated water, say researchers at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Enhanced single-walled carbon nanotubes offer a more effective and sustainable approach to water treatment and remediation than the standard industry materials–silicon gels and activated carbon–according to a paper published in the March issue of Environmental Science Water: Research and Technology.

RIT researchers John-David Rocha and Reginald Rogers, authors of the study, demonstrate the potential of this emerging technology to clean polluted water. Their work applies carbon nanotubes to environmental problems in a specific new way that builds on a nearly two decades of nanomaterial research. Nanotubes are more commonly associated with fuel-cell research.




“This aspect is new–taking knowledge of carbon nanotubes and their properties and realizing, with new processing and characterization techniques, the advantages nanotubes can provide for removing contaminants for water,” said Rocha, assistant professor in the School of Chemistry and Materials Science in RIT’s College of Science.

Rocha and Rogers are advancing nanotube technology for environmental remediation and water filtration for home use.

“We have shown that we can regenerate these materials,” said Rogers, assistant professor of chemical engineering in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering. “In the future, when your water filter finally gets saturated, put it in the microwave for about five minutes and the impurities will get evaporated off.”

Carbon nanotubes are storage units measuring about 50,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Carbon reduced to the nanoscale defies the rules of physics and operates in a world of quantum mechanics in which small materials become mighty.

“We know carbon as graphite for our pencils, as diamonds, as soot,” Rocha said. “We can transform that soot or graphite into a nanometer-type material known as graphene.”

A single-walled carbon nanotube is created when a sheet of graphene is rolled up. The physical change alters the material’s chemical structure and determines how it behaves. The result is “one of the most heat conductive and electrically conductive materials in the world,” Rocha said. “These are properties that only come into play because they are at the nanometer scale.”

The RIT researchers created new techniques for manipulating the tiny materials. Rocha developed a method for isolating high-quality, single-walled carbon nanotubes and for sorting them according to their semiconductive or metallic properties. Rogers redistributed the pure carbon nanotubes into thin papers akin to carbon-copy paper.

“Once the papers are formed, now we have the adsorbent–what we use to pull the contaminants out of water,” Rogers said.

The filtration process works because “carbon nanotubes dislike water,” he added. Only the organic contaminants in the water stick to the nanotube, not the water molecules.

“This type of application has not been done before,” Rogers said. “Nanotubes used in this respect is new.”


Co-authors on the paper are Ryan Capasse, RIT chemistry alumnus, and Anthony Dichiara, a former RIT post-doctoral researcher in chemical engineering now at the University of Washington.

Researchers at A*STAR Discover Nano-Structured Coatings Absorb Pollutants from Drinking Water


Low-cost iron hydroxide coatings with unique fin-like shapes can clean heavily contaminated water with a simple dipping procedure.

As one of the primary components of rust, iron hydroxides normally pose corrosive risks to health. A team at Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore, has found a way to turn these compounds into an environmentally friendly coating that repeatedly absorbs large amounts of pollutants, such as dyes, from drinking water at room temperature.

Conventional activated charcoal treatments have trouble removing heavy metals and bulky organic compounds from water. Instead, iron hydroxides are being increasingly used because they can form stable chemical bonds to these unwanted pollutants. Researchers have recently found that turning iron particles into miniscule nanomaterials boosts their active surface areas and enhances chemical absorption processes.

Separating iron hydroxide nanomaterials from water, however, remains difficult. Commercial filtration systems and experimental magnetic treatments introduce significant complexity and cost into treatment plants. Failure to remove these substances may lead to acute or chronic health issues if they are ingested.

To improve handling of the nanosized iron hydroxides, Sing Yang Chiam from A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering and co-workers decided to attach them to a solid, sponge-like support known as nickel foam. This type of material could safely trap and remove contaminants by immersion into dirty water, and then be regenerated with a simple chemical treatment. But immobilizing the nanoparticles also diminishes their valuable high surface areas — a paradox the team had to solve.

“We were not totally convinced that a coating approach could perform as well as traditional powders and particles,” says Chiam. “So we were really pleased when some nice test results came through.”

The A*STAR team found their answer by synthesizing iron hydroxide coatings with a hierarchy of structural features, from nano- to micrometer scales. To do so, they turned to electrodeposition, a green synthesis method that deposits aqueous metal ions on to nickel foam at mild voltages. After optimizing the uniformity and adhesion of their multiscale coatings, they tested their material in water contaminated by a ‘Congo red’ dye pollutant. Within half an hour, the water became almost colorless, with over 90 per cent of the dye attached to the special coating.


astar-pollutants-170126103405_1_540x360The Institute of Materials Research and Engineering team. Credit: © 2017 A*STAR Institute of Materials Research and Engineering


Close-up views of the coating’s nanostructure using scanning electron microscopy revealed that elongated, fin-like protrusions were key to recovering active surface area for high-performance pollutant removal. “Even though these coatings have some of the highest capacities ever reported, they are only operating at a fraction of their theoretical capacity,” says Chiam. “We are really excited about tapping their potential.”

Story Source:

Materials provided by The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Junyi Liu, Lai Mun Wong, Gurudayal Gurudayal, Lydia Helena Wong, Sing Yang Chiam, Sam Fong Yau Li, Yi Ren. Immobilization of dye pollutants on iron hydroxide coated substrates: kinetics, efficiency and the adsorption mechanism. J. Mater. Chem. A, 2016; 4 (34): 13280 DOI: 10.1039/C6TA03088B

Technology could make treatment and reuse of oil and gas wastewater simpler, cheaper – University of Colorado + MIT + Rice Universities (NEWT)

fracking-happeningOil and gas operations in the United States produce about 21 billion barrels of wastewater per year. The saltiness of the water and the organic contaminants it contains have traditionally made treatment difficult and expensive.

Engineers at the University of Colorado Boulder have invented a simpler process that can simultaneously remove both salts and  from the wastewater, all while producing additional energy. The new technique, which relies on a microbe-powered battery, was recently published in the journal Environmental Science Water Research & Technology as the cover story.

“The beauty of the technology is that it tackles two different problems in one single system,” said Zhiyong Jason Ren, a CU-Boulder associate professor of environmental and sustainability engineering and senior author of the paper. “The problems become mutually beneficial in our system—they complement each other—and the process produces energy rather than just consumes it.”

The new treatment technology, called microbial capacitive desalination, is like a battery in its basic form, said Casey Forrestal, a CU-Boulder postdoctoral researcher who is the lead author of the paper and working to commercialize the technology. “Instead of the traditional battery, which uses chemicals to generate the electrical current, we use microbes to generate an electrical current that can then be used for desalination.” cu-desal-cell-microbio-c2ee21737f-f1

This microbial electro-chemical approach takes advantage of the fact that the contaminants found in the wastewater contain energy-rich hydrocarbons, the same compounds that make up and . The microbes used in the treatment process eat the hydrocarbons and release their embedded energy. The energy is then used to create a positively charged electrode on one side of the cell and a negatively charged electrode on the other, essentially setting up a battery.

Because salt dissolves into positively and negatively charged ions in water, the cell is then able to remove the salt in the wastewater by attracting the charged ions onto the high-surface-area electrodes, where they adhere.

Not only does the system allow the salt to be removed from the wastewater, but it also creates additional energy that could be used on site to run equipment, the researchers said.

“Right now have to spend energy to treat the wastewater,” Ren said. “We are able to treat it without energy consumption; rather we extract energy out of it.”

Some oil and gas wastewater is currently being treated and reused in the field, but that treatment process typically requires multiple steps—sometimes up to a dozen—and an input of that may come from diesel generators.

Because of the difficulty and expense, wastewater is often disposed of by injecting it deep underground. The need to dispose of wastewater has increased in recent years as the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has boomed. Fracking refers to the process of injecting a slurry of water, sand and chemicals into wells to increase the amount of oil and natural gas produced by the well.

Injection wells that handle wastewater from fracking operations can cause earthquakes in the region, according to past research by CU-Boulder scientists and others.cu-boulder-maxresdefault

The demand for water for fracking operations also has caused concern among people worried about scarce water resources, especially in arid regions of the country. Finding water to buy for fracking operations in the West, for example, has become increasingly challenging and expensive for oil and gas companies.

Ren and Forrestal’s microbial capacitive desalination cell offers the possibility that water could be more economically treated on site and reused for fracking.

To try to turn the technology into a commercial reality, Ren and Forrestal have co-founded a startup company called BioElectric Inc. In order to determine if the technology offers a viable solution for oil and gas companies, the pair first has to show they can scale up the work they’ve been doing in the lab to a size that would be useful in the field.

The cost to scale up the technology also needs to be competitive with what oil and gas companies are paying now to buy water to use for fracking, Forrestal said. There also is some movement in state legislatures to require oil and gas companies to reuse wastewater, which could make BioElectric’s product more appealing even at a higher price, the researchers said.

mit-gradiantcorp-071715-2MIT – Toward Cheaper Water Treatment for Oil & Gas Operations

MIT spinout makes treating, recycling highly contaminated oilfield water more economical

0629_NEWT-log-lg-310x310Also Read: Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment or NEWT: Transforming the Economics of Water Treatment: Rice, ASU, Yale, UTEP win $18.5 Million NSF Engineering Research Center




Explore further: New contaminants found in oil and gas wastewater

More information: “Microbial capacitive desalination for integrated organic matter and salt removal and energy production from unconventional natural gas produced water.” Environ. Sci.: Water Res. Technol., 2015,1, 47-55 DOI: 10.1039/C4EW00050A


Genesis Nanotechnology ~ “Great Things from Small Things”
YouTube Video: Genesis Nanotechnology Nano Enabled Water Treatment; Quantum Dots from Coal & More

NSF and Stony Brook University: New Nanotechnology to produce sustainable, clean water for developing nations: Video

This technology would enable communities to produce their own water filters using biomass nanofibers, making clean water more accessible and affordable.

The world’s population is projected to increase by 2-3 billion over the next 40 years. Already, more than three quarters of a billion people lack access to clean drinking water and 85 percent live in the driest areas of the planet. Those statistics are inspiring chemist Ben Hsiao and his team at Stony Brook University. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the team is hard at work designing nanometer-scale water filters that could soon make clean drinking water available and affordable for even the poorest of the poor.

Traditional water filters are made of polymer membranes with tiny pores to filter out bacteria and viruses. Hsiao’s filters are made of fibers that are all tangled up, and the pores are the natural gaps between the strands. The team’s first success at making the new nanofilters uses a technique called electrospinning to produce nanofibers under an electrical field.

Hsiao’s team is also looking to cut costs even further by using “biomass” nanofibers extracted from trees, grasses, shrubs — even old paper. Hsiao says it will be a few years yet before the environmentally friendly biomass filters are ready for widespread use in developing countries, but the filters will eliminate the need to build polymer plants in developing areas. Ultimately, those filters could be produced locally with native biomass or biowaste.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1019370, Breakthrough Concepts on Nanofibrous Membranes with Directed Water Channels for Energy-Saving Water Purification.

Watch the Video: New Nanotechnology to Produce Sustainable, Clean Drinking Water for Developing NationsSilver Nano P clean-drinking-water-india

NSF and Stony Brook University: New nanotechnology to produce sustainable, clean water for developing nations

This technology would enable communities to produce their own water filters using biomass nanofibers, making clean water more accessible and affordable – Follow the Link below to Watch the Video.

The world’s population is projected to increase by 2-3 billion over the next 40 years. Already, more than three quarters of a billion people lack access to clean drinking water and 85 percent live in the driest areas of the planet.

Those statistics are inspiring chemist Ben Hsiao and his team at Stony Brook University. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the team is hard at work designing nanometer-scale water filters that could soon make clean drinking water available and affordable for even the poorest of the poor.

Traditional water filters are made of polymer membranes with tiny pores to filter out bacteria and viruses. Hsiao’s filters are made of fibers that are all tangled up, and the pores are the natural gaps between the strands. The team’s first success at making the new nanofilters uses a technique called electrospinning to produce nanofibers under an electrical field.

Hsiao’s team is also looking to cut costs even further by using “biomass” nanofibers extracted from trees, grasses, shrubs — even old paper. Hsiao says it will be a few years yet before the environmentally friendly biomass filters are ready for widespread use in developing countries, but the filters will eliminate the need to build polymer plants in developing areas. Ultimately, those filters could be produced locally with native biomass or biowaste.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1019370, Breakthrough Concepts on Nanofibrous Membranes with Directed Water Channels for Energy-Saving Water Purification.Silver Nano P clean-drinking-water-india

Watch the Video Here: New Nanotechnology for Sustainable, Clean Water for Developing Nations

MIT: Seeking sustainable solutions through Nanotechnology – Engineer’s designs may help purify water, diagnose disease in remote regions of world.

mit-karnik-rohit-1“I try to guide my research by … asking myself the question, ‘What can we do today that will have a lasting impact and be conducive to a sustainable human civilization?’” says Rohit Karnik, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Photo: Ken Richardson

In Rohit Karnik’s lab, researchers are searching for tiny solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges.

In one of his many projects, Karnik, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is developing a new microfluidic technology that can quickly and simply sorts cells from small samples of blood. The surface of a microfluidic channel is patterned to direct certain cells to roll toward a reservoir for further analysis, while allowing the rest of the blood sample to pass through. With this design, Karnik envisions developing portable, disposable devices that doctors may use, even in remote regions of the world, to quickly diagnose conditions ranging from malaria to sepsis.

Karnik’s group is also tackling issues of water purification. The researchers are designing filters from single layers of graphene, which are atom-thin sheets of carbon known for their exceptional strength. Karnik has devised a way to control the size and concentration of pores in graphene, and is tailoring single layers to filter out miniscule and otherwise evasive contaminants. The group has also successfully filtered salts using the technique and hopes to develop efficient graphene filters for water purification and other applications. Silver Nano P clean-drinking-water-india

In looking for water-purifying solutions, Karnik’s group also identified a surprisingly low-tech option: the simple tree branch. Karnik found that the pores within a pine branch that normally help to transport water up the plant are ideal for filtering bacteria from water. The group has shown that a peeled pine branch can filter out up to 99.00 percent of E. coli from contaminated water. Karnik’s group is building up on this work to explore the potential for simple and affordable wood-based water purification systems.

“I try to guide my research by long-term sustainability, in a specific sense, by asking myself the question, ‘What can we do today that will have a lasting impact and be conducive to a sustainable human civilization?’ Karnik says. “I try to align myself with that goal.”

From stargazer to tinkerer

Karnik was born and raised in Pune, India, which was then a relatively quiet city 100 miles east of Mumbai. Karnik describes himself while growing up as shy, yet curious about the way the world worked. He would often set up simple experiments in his backyard, seeing, for instance, how transplanting ants from one colony to another would change the ants’ behavior. (The short answer: They fought, sometimes to the death.) He developed an interest in astronomy early on and often explored the night sky with a small telescope, from the roof of his family’s home.

“I used to take my telescope up to the terrace in the middle of the night, which required three different trips up six or seven flights of stairs,” Karnik says. “I’d set the alarm for 3 a.m., go up, and do quite a bit of stargazing.”

That telescope would soon serve another use, as Karnik eventually found that, by inverting it and adding another lens, he could repurpose the telescope as a microscope.

“I built a little setup so I could look at different things, and I used to collect stuff from around the house, like onion peels or fungus growing on trees, to look at their cells,” Karnik says.

When it came time to decide on a path of study, Karnik was inspired by his uncle, a mechanical engineer who built custom machines “that did all kinds of things, from making concrete bricks, to winding up springs,” Karnik says. “What I saw in mechanical engineering was the ability to building something that integrates across different disciplines.”

Seeking balance and insight

As an entering student at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Karnik chose to study mechanical engineering over electrical engineering, which was the more popular choice among students at the time. For his thesis, he looked for new ways to model three-dimensional cracks in materials such as steel beams.

Casting around for a direction after graduating, Karnik landed on the fast-growing field of nanotechnology. Arun Majumdar, an IIT alum and professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was studying energy conversion and biosensing in nanoscale systems. Karnik joined the professor’s lab as a graduate student, moving to California in 2002. For his graduate work, Karnik helped to develop a microfluidic platform to rapidly mix the contents of and test reactions occurring within droplets. He followed this work up with a PhD thesis in which he explored how fluid, flowing through tiny, nanometer-sized channels, can be controlled  to sense and direct ions and molecules.

Toward the end of his graduate work, Karnik interviewed for and ultimately accepted a faculty position at MIT. However, he was still completing his PhD thesis at Berkeley and had less than 4 years of experience beyond his bachelor’s degree. To help ease the transition, MIT offered Karnik an interim postdoc position in the lab of Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor and a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

“It was an insightful experience,” Karnik remembers. “For a mechanical engineer who’s never been outside mechanical engineering, I basically had little experience how to do things in biology. It opened up possibilities for working with the biomedical community.”

When Karnik finally assumed his position as assistant professor of mechanical engineering in 2007, he experienced a tidal wave of deadlines, demands, and responsibilities — a common initiation for first-time faculty.

“By its nature the job is overwhelming,” Karnik says. “The trick is how to maintain balance and sanity and do the things you like, without being distracted by the busyness around you, in some sense.”

He says several things have helped him to handle and even do away with stress: walks, which he takes each day to work and around campus, as well as yoga and meditation.

“If you can see things the way they are, by clearing away the filters your mind puts in place, you can get a clear perspective, and there are a lot of insights that come through,” Karnik says.