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jueves, 18 de abril 2024
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A wastewater decontamination system has brought a new patent to UdeA

By Natalia Piedrahita Tamayo, Journalist

Outstanding for its innovative design and industrial applicability, a modular electrochemical system for treating contaminated water brought UdeA a new invention patent, granted by the SIC last October. The mechanism, designed with modularity in mind, holds the potential to provide access to water in remote areas. It was conceived by three members of the Environmental Remediation and Biocatalysis Research Group.

Ricardo Torres Palma, coordinator of the Environmental Remediation and Biocatalysis Research Group (Girab), attached to the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences of the Universidad de Antioquia. Photos: Communications Office / Alejandra Uribe Fernández.

Developing solutions for treating water contaminated with synthetic and biological toxins has become one of the greatest challenges in scientific development and innovations, not only for Colombia but also for most countries in the world. Addressing this pressing issue, UdeA researchers Ricardo Torres Palma, Javier Silva Agredo, and Robinson Agudelo López have dedicated nearly a decade to exploring alternatives to deal with these pollutants. They tend to “pass straight through” the existing treatment systems in the country, according to these experts.

Their extensive research efforts recently led to a significant breakthrough: the Superintendence of Industry and Commerce (SIC) granted a patent for their development called “Wastewater Decontamination System Containing an Electrocoagulation Module (I) and an Advanced Oxidation Module (II).”

It is a water treatment system consisting of an electrocoagulation module and an electrochemical module. “What is particularly interesting is that it is an autonomous system, meaning it does not require the addition of chemical substances and can operate with low-cost solar panels. This makes it suitable for isolated populations lacking access to many services,” explained Torres Palma, coordinator of the Environmental Remediation and Biocatalysis Research Group (Girab), attached to the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences of the Universidad de Antioquia.

The device or reactor, patented by the SIC through Resolution 6641630 of October 2023, is also suitable for installation in remote or rural areas. It is designed in modules that can be adjusted according to the loads or volume of water to be treated. Depending on the type of contaminants in the water, one or both modules are used. One module is for electrocoagulation, while the other employs an advanced electrochemical process with ultraviolet light which can be provided by a solar panel.

Torres Palma, whose academic focus lies in the development of water treatment systems, elaborated on the reactor's functionality. He described it as a system where contaminated water initially passes through a first module, which may consist of containers with electrodes made of low-cost stainless-steel plates connected to an electrical source. “These plates introduce iron into the system, triggering electrochemical coagulation that eliminates contaminants. Enhanced removal efficiency is achieved through the rotation of the electrodes. Subsequently, the water passes into a second system where micropollutants and organic matter are removed.”

The Girab group comprises students and professors from undergraduate Chemistry, Biology, and Pharmaceutical Chemistry programs. With a rich history in the study and development of sonochemical, electrochemical, photochemical, and ozone-based techniques, they explore options for treating wastewater containing pollutants such as fertilizers, pesticides, drugs and resistant bacteria, among others. Recognized internationally for their expertise, Girab professionals work together with peers from countries including England, Peru, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Chile. The research and implementation of such solutions are funded by the Royal Society of England, the European Union, the Swiss National Fund, MinCiencias and the Universidad de Antioquia.

Photos: Communications Office / Alejandra Uribe Fernández

“Conventional treatment systems, such as filtration to remove solid particles and biological systems where bacteria metabolize biodegradable elements, fail to address the array of contaminants prevalent in Colombia today,” explained Torres Palma. “In fact, some methods such as chlorination can produce highly toxic contaminants.”

While acknowledging the advantages and disadvantages of each technique, the researcher stated that the patented modular electrochemical system is more advanced and specialized. It works without the addition of any chemical reagents, can be powered by solar panels, and is adaptable to the degree of water contamination and its intended subsequent use.

The increase of resistant bacteria in the environment has reached concerning levels, prompting recent warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO) about the possibility of pandemics. By 2050, these bacteria could be responsible for nearly 10 million deaths annually. In this sense, the patented modular electrochemical system could serve as a valuable ally in mitigating health risks, not only for humans but also for other organisms and ecosystems dependent on water consumption.

According to the researchers, the development of this modular electrochemical system represents a significant step towards ensuring access to water for populations living in the most remote regions of Colombia. This endeavor aligns with the fulfillment of a fundamental human right recognized within the Sustainable Development Goals or Global Goals of the United Nations General Assembly. "Many of the processes that benefit urban populations originate in rural areas. This really compels us to prioritize innovation and development in the remote regions of our department and country, as a gesture of gratitude for all that we owe to these communities,” remarked Javier Silva Agredo.

From the perspective of this chemist, contamination derives from the damage that we as a species have done to water. Consequently, the research group Girab is motivated to mitigate these issues by developing new technologies tailored to the specific needs of the country.

The patenting processes at UdeA are advised by the Office for the Transfer of Research Results (OTRI). In addition, the institution’s Intellectual Property Statute plays a pivotal role in safeguarding such knowledge assets.

“As Colombians, we possessed the capacity to develop this system, which implements interconnected methodologies to achieve efficient water decontamination,” said Silva Agredo. “We, as engines of invention, belong to a society in need of change and to a university that has trained us for it. This university provides us with the spaces to work for the welfare of living beings, water bodies and the Earth. Today, we present this invention to our country.”

The patent is owned by the Universidad de Antioquia. The next step is the implementation of this system, which requires alliances with both public and private industries.

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