Top 200

Stony Brook University


  • Energy and Environment, Clean Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

  • India | Kenya | Madagascar | Mexico | Global Programs

  • Economically disadvantaged people

  • Public charity

  • $67,273,982 (2015)

  • 9

Executive Summary

Access to clean drinking water is a still chronic problem for 1.8B people worldwide. Over 1.5B are afflicted with water related diseases annually. Population growth, climate change, natural disasters and pollution keep pushing these numbers higher. Existing solutions require expensive energy sources and synthetic materials to produce, making them inaccessible to those needing them most. Our game changing nanocellulose technologies use neither! We use biomasses like weeds and grass, the most abundant, renewable and underutilized raw material sources on earth, to provide low cost, environmentally friendly and efficient filters that can purify water in a single pour. Our filter fabrication techniques can be easily taught. Our expert led, five year plan calls for extraction of nanocelluloses from additional sources; advancement of new water technologies; and nucleation of self sustaining ventures through onsite NGO partners to transfer knowledge and disseminate technology. Even the poorest, most remote communities can have safe drinking water using these technologies powered by gravity.

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The Problem

Distribution of clean, fresh water on earth is extremely uneven. Over 25% of the world's population does not have access to safe drinking water, which should be a basic human right. This problem will be further exacerbated by projected population growth - nearly 40% to some 9.7 billion people by 2050. As much as 90% of this growth will occur in Africa (especially sub Saharan Africa) and Asia, in many of the same countries and regions that already experience water shortages. Overpopulation, compounded by climate change, natural disasters, pollution, and human migration will continue to increase water scarcity. What seems a problem for only poorer or more underdeveloped countries foreshadows a problem for advanced economies, too, since most of the developed world has higher, and growing, water requirements for agriculture and industry, and is already experiencing regional water shortages. Ethically, we are all members of the human family, and the strong should help the weak. Judiciously, we realize even the fittest countries and communities will eventually become weak if sustainable clean water is not available. Disease, starvation and conflict could threaten all of human existence. Unfortunately, current water purification technologies, although helpful, are intensely dependent on synthetic materials and costly energy sources, and simply cannot meet the increasing global needs for fair and equitable access to clean water. Along with being expensive and non sustainable, they often do not consider the cultures, customs and daily practices of local and regional communities, thus are not well adapted or adopted.

Proposed Solution

To develop and disseminate low cost, sustainable, game changing technologies across the globe, using abundant biomass and free energy as the source of purification materials and systems, providing those at the bottom of our economic pyramid with reliable access to safe drinking water, thereby helping everyone. Our rationale is as follows. Cellulose is one of the most important natural polymers, an almost inexhaustible raw material, and a key source of sustainable materials for humankind. It's the major ingredient in wood and plant fibers (used for millennia as an energy source), and in many abundant and underutilized biomass sources, including grass and algae. Nanocelluloses, a new class of nanomaterials, provide an ideal platform to solve drinking water problems. With a common molecular backbone and enormous variety in cost and capabilities, they can be extracted locally using techniques that are easily taught from a broad range of biomass types to create low cost, high performance water purification devices, addressing regional water needs. Nanocelluloses already have proved to be very competitive with activated carbon in sorptive functioning. Emerging water remediation applications use them as scaffolding materials (e.g., nanofibers and nanoparticles) for filtration or contaminant detection in drinking water purification. In collaboration with startups from 36 pilot sites, we envision a network of locally operated service centers employing our filtration systems, locality specific in development and customization, and continuously monitored and improved with our technology partners. Based on a humanitarian focused for profit franchise model, centers will offer modest support and incentives for trained operating teams to become self sustaining and expand regionally.

Evidence of Effectiveness

PI Hsiao has demonstrated a breakthrough membrane technology for water purification, which can remove pathogens and other contaminants in water using gravity. Traditional water filters are made of polymer membranes with tiny pores to filter out contaminants. Hsiao's filters are made of polymer nanofibers, allowing a 2 3X faster flow rate. His team's first success at making the nanofilters employed an electrospinning technique, producing nanofibers under an electrical field. This invention led to 2 startups, including Liquidity Nanotech which won 'TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2015 Startup Battlefield. This technology was highlighted by the Association of American Universities and National Science Foundation in a 2015 exhibit for the U.S. Congress, and in a Science Nation video. While effective at delivering safe drinking water, the filters are too expensive for remote communities. To dramatically reduce the cost of filter fabrication, Hsiao has been working closely with researchers at WWSC and AIBN to use biomass nanofibers, extracted from trees, grasses and shrubs, to replace synthetic nanofibers. The success of the method has been demonstrated and discussed in peer reviewed publications. Continued refinement and scaled implementation of the technique will eliminate the need to build new polymer plants, relying instead on inexpensive and locally available biomass to fabricate these high performance filters. Effectiveness in education and dissemination is evidenced by SBU's highly successful incubator program, which has a 'graduate' success rate 5.5X the typical one for technology startups, as well as in the impressive track record of its partner organizations.

Previous Performance

PI's Hsiao's invention and entrepreneurial record demonstrate not only mastery of core science and technology disciplines, but also the ability to develop innovations suitable for commercialization. His recruitment of highly distinguished technology collaborators is a testament to the shared belief in his vision as well as his leadership capabilities. The team's expertise within the field of water filtration using diverse biomass is unparalleled: WWSC's accomplishments on development of new materials from trees are at the forefront of cellulose technology; AIBN is home to experts on nanotechnology for energy and environmental applications, which complements SBU's Center for Clean Water Technology for developing new water treatment methods. The addition of green chemistry expertise in WBI, and the accessibility of the most advanced characterization facilities at Brookhaven National Laboratory, which SBU manages, further position our team to achieve the technical goal with certainty. SBU also has an impressive record of success in fostering entrepreneurship and incubating startups. The SBU incubator programs have achieved a remarkable record of selecting, nurturing and graduating successful technology startups and fostering student entrepreneurship at all levels. In technology dissemination, SBU's own TBI and ValBio enterprises, both world renowned research facilities, have also become successful gateways for helping the local communities to access modern technologies. These accomplishments attracted like minded and highly regarded organizations, such as Ekal and SELCO Foundations in India, CINVESTAV in Mexico and BITRI in Botswana, all with effective outreach ability and notable credentials to improve the well being of their rural communities through technology and education.

The Team

Team Purpose

We want to help solve the grand challenge of safe drinking water for everyone by bringing together experts in their fields who will help overcome regional obstacles and begin affordable distribution of our technology. With a shared vision, all participating institutes and organizations, having different but complementary capabilities, will collaborate across international and cultural divides. The team will be built around the technical competency of nanocellulose and water research at Stony Brook University, cellulose nanotechnologies at Sweden's Wallenberg Wood Science Center and Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, and green chemistry at Warner Babcock Institute, with the social and technology expertise and enterprise of Ekal Vidyalaya and SELCO (India), CINVESTAV (Mexico), and Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation (Africa). These will leverage Stony Brook's own activities at Turkana Basin Institute (Kenya) and Centre ValBio (Madagascar), which are already developing and transferring sustainable water solutions to their local communities.

Team Structure

This project will be managed by a Steering Committee, comprising PI Hsiao and 8 regional leaders (3 from Stony Brook University (SBU) including TBI and ValBio; 5 from partner institutes and organizations). An Advisory Board, comprising 5 prominent members from the international scientific and humanitarian communities, will be assembled to evaluate overall performance of the project and provide strategic direction. The Committee will be assisted by 2 managers (technology and global implementation) and their administrative staff to handle daily operations. All Committee members have extensive experience in managing large international collaborations (e.g., Hsiao was VP for Research at SBU). The Committee will meet monthly to evaluate the overall research and program progress, review finances, and adjust planned activities. The team includes 48 scientists, engineers and organization leaders, about 50 graduate students and 10 post docs, plus regional trainees, entities and their partner organization monitors. The entire team will meet semiannually, ideally scheduled to enable all team members to attend in person; video teleconferencing will be available. During semiannual meetings, the team will sponsor thematic virtual workshops to engage global audiences, leveraging partners' connections with NGOs and other appropriate international and U.S. organizations and in the broader development community.

Past Funders

  1. Mercer Family Foundation
  2. Simons Foundation
  3. Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  4. Bernard Osher Foundation
  5. Robert R. McCormick Foundation
  6. W. K. Kellogg Foundation
  7. The Corey Foundation
  8. Kissinger Family Foundation, Inc.
  9. Louis Morin Charitable Trust
  10. The Lawrence Ellison Foundation

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