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Technology Aims to Improve Drinking Water

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LiteWater system

The tested LiteWater system killed more than 99 percent of pathogens in water.

Credit: University of Alabama

A method of cleaning drinking water with light is being tested and developed at The University of Alabama with the hope of creating a product available for homes and businesses.

LiteWater, a start-up working with the technology, will be one of five teams competing in the Alabama Launchpad Startup Competition Dec. 10 in Huntsville.

Cleaning drinking water from a faucet with ultraviolet light, along with standard filters, could not only remove chemicals but potentially harmful viruses and bacteria. Commercially-available filters for homes and businesses use activated carbon and other minerals to remove contaminants, but they do not disinfect the water from pathogens.

"LiteWater is a mini water treatment plant for a faucet," says Ben Bickerstaff, co-founder of the company and a graduate research assistant with the UA Office for Technology Transfer. "The technology uses UV lamps to disinfect harmful pathogens from water. To date, we have blown past EPA standards, the gold standard, for clean drinking water."

LiteWater is part of a host of start-up companies that receive early assistance and mentoring through the Office for Technology Transfer within the UA Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development.

The patent-pending technology is based off work done by Peter Gordon, an engineer and entrepreneur, that was tested and developed by two UA professors, Mark Elliott, an assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, and Patrick Kung, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Gordon approached Elliott and Kung who, along with students, explored new methods of disinfecting water using ultraviolet light as part of a contest sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The three partnered to further research and develop one of Gordon's technologies that would disinfect water at the point of use, the standard faucet.

While water treatment facilities disinfect drinking water for customers, the water travels through pipes to homes and businesses. There are more than 100 million miles of drinking-water pipes in the United States, and the majority have been buried for more than 30 years, some since the Civil War. That has some systems struggling to maintain the aging infrastructure on small budgets.

In the U.S., there are about 240,000 water main breaks annually that could allow contamination of water. The Center for Disease Control reports an estimated 50,000 hospitalizations annually caused by waterborne diseases, costing $860 million.

Small water systems, particular those in rural, economically disadvantaged areas, often have subpar maintenance and infrastructure investments as they serve a small population over large areas. About a quarter of Alabamians receive drinking water from small water systems and another 12 percent use private water wells that don't have the advantages of large, municipal water systems, according to research by LiteWater.

The LiteWater team hopes to further develop a prototype that uses technology that kills 99.99 percent of illness-causing pathogens by using a UV rays, according to test and research at UA. The conceived product would combine current filtration methods with UV disinfection to create a device that attaches to the end of a faucet that allow the water to flow through it continuously.

Alabama Launchpad, a program of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, is continuing its efforts to help high growth companies start, stay, and grow in Alabama. The contest final will be at the Design Lab-Huntsville at the Lincoln Mills historic district. Teams will pitch their ideas and services before judges to win a share of up to $250,000.


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