University of Texas at Austin, IBM Collaboration Helps Develop Water Purification Technology

IBM Corp. recently announced it had developed a novel membrane technology that filters out salts as well as potentially harmful toxins such as arsenic from water while using less energy than other forms of water purification.

The company credited The University of Texas at Austin as one of the partners in the development of the membrane.

The University of Texas at Austin partner was Benny Freeman, a chemical engineering professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering, and his laboratory. His lab has done extensive work on membrane technology, but he said that his role in the IBM developed was more advisory.

Freeman said he presented a seminar about membranes and filtration at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., to help bring IBM researchers up to speed in the technology and "get oriented to the field."

Freeman and members of his lab have visited the Almaden research facilities and IBM researchers have visited Freeman's lab in Austin.

Freeman's lab has equipment--some of it custom-made--that IBM researchers find useful. Equipment in the IBM facilities is made available to members of Freeman's lab.

Research on water purification is one part of the expertise of Freeman's lab. Other areas of research include gas separations, liquid separations and barrier packaging.

In IBM's membrane technology announcement, the company said it designed a new concept in membrane materials that combines resistance to chlorine damage and high performance separation behavior in mildly basic conditions, making it suitable for arsenic removal in addition to water desalination.

Other partners in the collaborative research included Central Glass, based in Tokyo, and the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology.

There might be further collaboration between Freeman's lab and IBM. He received an IBM Faculty Award in 2008. The awards, of up to $40,000, are to foster collaboration between researchers at leading universities worldwide and those in IBM research, development and services organizations.

"Benny and I have been talking about scaling up the relationship between UT and IBM concerning water," said Robert Allen, manager of the water purification project at the Almaden Research Center. "IBM, as part of our Smarter Planet strategy, is focused well beyond water purification research (as Professor Freeman and our team are working toward) to water management, smart sensor networks, the water/energy connection, etc. So it may be that there are many synergies between UT and IBM in this space."

Freeman came to IBM's attention through Grant Willson, a colleague of Freeman's in the Chemical Engineering Department.

Willson worked at IBM before coming to the university and works with the company in his lithography research. When he found out IBM was interested in membrane technology, he put the company in touch with Freeman.