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Aquaporin-Inside™ Membranes for Brackish water Reverse Osmosis Application

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - AMBROSIA (Aquaporin-Inside™ Membranes for Brackish water Reverse Osmosis Application)

Reporting period: 2019-10-01 to 2020-06-30

Water Scarcity: A Global and European Problem

More than a billion people currently live in water-scarce regions, and as many as 3.5 billion could experience water scarcity by 2025. Forecasts estimate that water demand in 2040 will exceed supply by 50%. Seawater amounts to 97% of all water contained on Earth and can, fortunately, be converted into fresh water by desalination. In Europe, various water crises are increasing in frequency and severity, and the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates that over one third of EU territories are water stressed, affecting over 100 million Europeans. The main causes stem from drought and depletion of freshwater sources, causing an overall 24% decrease in renewable water resources per capita in Europe. Extreme weather caused by climate change is causing more severe and extended periods of drought, as shown by data from the European Drought Observatory (EDO). Many policy makers, legislators, industries and consumers are taking measures to improve efficiency of water utilization, but the EEA believe it is not enough to meet the challenges we face in the coming years.

Satisfying a growing water demand with a diminishing supply requires a greater deal of treatment in order to reach the necessary quantities and qualities. Water treatment is a well-established industry, using many technologies to purify water by removing various impurities or contaminants. Improved water treatment technology is therefore a critical piece of the puzzle to a sustainable water supply in Europe and globally.
Reverse Osmosis (RO) is a water purification technology where water is driven through a semipermeable membrane by applying pressure. It is the industry standard today and used in the majority of all desalination and water treatment plants globally. Compared to other alternative technologies, it is attractive because of its rejection of most common contaminants and the resulting high purity product water. However, it is still an expensive and energy intensive process. Greatly increasing the extent of water treatment will also require significantly more energy, with subsequent environmental impact and higher costs to the end-user.

Aquaporin has developed a ground-breaking biomimetic technology to separate and purify water from other compounds based on nature’s own principles: Aquaporin water channel proteins. The Aquaporin Inside® technology will potentially disrupt the current RO technology, making it more energy and water efficient as well as more sustainable and cost-effective.

The objective of AMBROSIA was to develop the first Aquaporin Inside® Brackish Water RO (BWRO) membrane and prepare the product for commercial launch to the market. Within AMBROSIA, we successfully developed the first ever BWRO membrane containing aquaporin water channels and developed it from lab scale coupon size (TRL4) to full scale 8040 spiral wound elements (TRL7). This means that we now have a pre-commercial Aquaporin Inside® BWRO membrane available (see picture).
The overall goal of the project was to develop, test and market a unique and novel Brackish Water Reverse Osmosis (BWRO) membrane containing aquaporins. The key focus of the project was to scale the Aquaporin Inside® BWRO membrane from coupon to full commercial element size and introduce them to the market. These elements were independently benchmarked against well-established commercial competitors in a full-scale system that was built and operated by our partner ATEKNEA. Testing shows that we have successfully optimized and up-scaled BWRO membranes to work at brackish water conditions (15 bar) in both flat sheet and spiral wound module formats and that those membranes fulfil the performance goals defined within AMBROSIA. In addition, the newly developed Aquaporin Inside® BWRO membranes show performance at or significantly above our competitors’ products. Currently, the membranes elements are being evaluated by external partners in applications reaching from desalination to F&B separations.

During AMBROSIA a freedom to operate investigation was performed which did not reveal any patent rights in Europe or USA impacting the freedom-to-operate of the AMBROSIA project. In addition, as a result of the Aquaporin Inside® BWRO development, Aquaporin A/S also filed a patent to protect the invention. The patent (WO 2018/141985 Al, filed February 6th 2018) relates to amphiphilic diblock copolymer based vesicles comprising transmembrane proteins, such as aquaporin water channels (AQPs), and to filtration membranes comprising the vesicles. The present invention further relates to methods of making the vesicles and separation membranes containing them and to the uses of said membranes.

In parallel with membrane development, we developed a filtration system analysis tool, allowing for economic feasibility studies of membrane systems to be presented. The first generation of this computational system designer tool already efficiently predicts the performance of complex reverse osmosis systems. The model takes the most significant performance parameters into account and is therefore applicable for advanced and more refined configuration analyses. This tool can be the basis for advanced system analysis features including FO elements, filtration rate decrease due to membrane fouling, energy generation through PRO and solute composition analyses.

A comparative Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) was also performed. This assesses the environmental impacts of municipal BWRO desalination (production of 45 m3/h desalinated brackish water 24 hours a day for 5 years in California, USA) using Aquaporin Inside® BWRO 8040 membrane elements while comparing to industry standard BWRO membrane elements. The results show that the systems utilizing Aquaporin Inside® BWRO membranes perform better with respect to the 18 investigated mid-point impact categories and the 3 endpoint impact categories. The environmental performance of the two membrane products is mainly dependent on the electricity consumption during the use stage. Based on this LCA analysis, from an environmental perspective the Aquaporin Inside® BWRO membranes are the preferred option.

A last essential project within AMBROSIA was to conduct an extensive market analysis which combined literature research and customer interviews. Here, customer leads were contacted to get a preliminary idea of their preferences regarding a new brackish water RO product, and Aquaporin Inside® BWRO in general. The aim was to understand Aquaporin’s market fit, and potential degree of acceptance. Based on these interviews and related benchmarking and field-testing results (existing and upcoming), a full commercialization strategy, with a green deal goal focus, was developed for 3 markets to further Aquaporin Inside® commercial activities incorporating piloting, commercialization and global market deployment.
No major changes with regard to state of the art has occurred since the start of the project.

The major global trends that underpins the project remain intact and/or stronger. Population growth, urbanization and improved living conditions adds to the demand of strained freshwater resources. Depletion and contamination of clean freshwater sources adds more pressure and cost to satisfy the demand. As time goes on, the issues become more evident and severe. We believe that there will be an even greater demand for our innovation!