Particle beam technologies for clean water on World Water Day

Billions of people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water. It’s an issue raised by the United Nations through World Water Day, March 22, a UN observance day to promote the importance of fresh water.

The Illinois Accelerator Research Center (IARC) improves and transfers to industry the technology developed for basic discovery research. One of the exciting initiatives IARC is pursuing is a method for cleaning wastewater.

When applied to water, electron beams break down the water molecules into smaller charged particles that are very effective at breaking down most contaminants. Conventional electron beam technology has already been demonstrated to effectively clean water, but it has not seen heavy adoption because it treats only small amounts of water. An IARC R&D team is developing a new platform electron beam tool that will allow for the treatment of water, even at large flow rates, is energy-efficient and portable for remote use.

“Electron beams treat wastewater by breaking up the water molecules, represented by the blue figures. The resulting fragments break up the contaminants, represented by the red and green circles. Image: Fermilab”

IARC partners with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago to examine electron beam technology for treating wastewater and biosolids. In this collaboration, we have already demonstrated that electron beams can help the effectiveness of treatment systems that remove phosphorous, a key contaminant of concern, and very effectively kill fecal coliform pathogens. We are also determining whether the process can help recover energy from the incoming waste stream and break down pharmaceuticals that have passed through the human body.

IARC is also partnered with the Army Corps of Engineers Engineering Research and Development Center. Together, we’re investigating whether various contaminants in the military sector can be broken down via electron beams. One of the contaminants of interest is the family of chemicals known as perfluorates. Perfluorates are a problem seen around the world: 97 percent of people tested have some in their blood. There are issues with using conventional water treatment technologies for directly and completely removing perfluorates from water, and electron beam technology has shown promise based on early results.

The development of this tool was funded in part by the Department of Energy Accelerator Stewardship Program, which fosters use of such technology in industry.

Charlie Cooper is the IARC general manager.