Page content

Pioneering Clean Technology research at the University of Ulster's Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre (NIBEC) could provide a cost- effective way of using sunlight to provide safe drinking water for people in developing countries.

It is believed that 50% of the population in the developing world are exposed to polluted water sources, resulting in a higher risk of waterborne disease transmission, including typhoid, hepatitis and cholera. Each year, an estimated 2.2 million, the majority of them children under the age of five, die from these diseases.

Dr Tony Byrne is a Reader in the School of Engineering based in NIBEC where Clean Technology is a key theme. His research focuses on the solar photocatalytic treatment and disinfection of water and he is involved in a number of international collaborative research projects with partners in the USA, India, Spain, the UK and Ireland.

Dr Byrne explains that nanomaterials can be used to harness the sun’s energy to provide clean safe water which is particularly applicable in meeting the needs of the developing world.

“The provision of piped-in water supplies is an important long-term goal for the World Health Organisation. However both the WHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) acknowledge that we are unlikely to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the proportion of the people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.

“Conventional interventions to improve water supplies at the source or point of distribution have long been recognized as effective in preventing diarrhoea but more recent reviews have shown household-based or point-of-use interventions can be significantly more effective. As a result, there is increasing interest in such household-based interventions that deliver the health benefits associated with consumption of safe drinking water via low cost technologies. 

Dr Byrne continues: “Sunlight is widely and freely available in many developing countries and the combined effects of IR, visible and UV energy from the sun can inactivate pathogenic organisms present in water. A number of parameters affect the efficacy of solar disinfection of water (SODIS), including the solar irradiance, the quality of the water to be treated, and the nature of the contamination - as some pathogens are more resistant to SODIS than others. SODIS enhancement technologies may improve the process effectiveness without substantially increasing the cost.”

One such approach is the use of semiconductor photocatalysis. The technology utilises titanium dioxide, a white powder found in paint, sun screens and even powdered donuts.  When activated by light, it becomes a powerful catalyst able to kill pathogenic bacteria in water.

“The challenges relating to water disinfection in the developing world are great, but the ability to utilise freely available sunlight in low cost technologies, may help reduce the risk of waterborne disease for many of the world’s poorest people,” he said.

Some of the international partners involved in collaborative research projects with NIBEC attended the ‘The Nano for Clean Technology Workshop’ hosted by the University of Ulster. The workshop addressed the problem of safe drinking water for developing regions and focussed on Solar Photocatalytic Reactor Engineering for Water Disinfection. 

Guest speakers included Dr Kevin McGuigan, from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin whose research aims provide safe water in Cambodia, Bolivia, and Kenya; Dr Rita Dhodapkar and Dr NN Rao from the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute in India; Professor Dion Dionysiou, Cincinatti; Professor Kevin O’Shea, Florida and Dr Suresh Pillai, DIT Dr Pilar Fernandez, Spain;  Dr Javier Marugan from the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos Madrid and Professor Gianluca Le Puma from Loughborough.  

Dr Byrne is currently Course Director for the BEng (Hons) Clean Technology degree in the School of Engineering at Ulster.  When the programme was introduced two years ago, Ulster was the first UK university to offer an undergraduate programme in Clean Technology.

“Clean Technology has a bright future and Ulster is well placed to provide the knowledge and training for this new sector,” said Dr Byrne.

Clean Technology research at the University of Ulster could also help Northern Ireland lead the way in Europe on renewable energy, according to Professor David Philips, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). When he addressed the RSC inaugural Science and the Northern Ireland Assembly event at Stormont this year, Professor Philips singled out for mention the pioneering research at NIBEC. The meeting, attended by leading scientists and engineers from academia and industry, was to establish an All Party Group on Science and Engineering to advise government on key issues.