by Rob Manning
A Portland company has received state backing to perfect using a solar technology to clean farm and factory pollution. State research investors with Oregon BEST believe Portland-based Focal Technologies has a promising technology based on using the sun’s rays to clean up contaminated water. The idea is not new, according to commercialization director at Oregon BEST, Ken Vaughn. He said scientists have long worked to use solar energy to purify water. But efforts have been expensive or small-scale, and the need to clean up water affordably, at a large-scale, has been elusive.
“So it looks like Focal Technologies has a new product that they’ve been developing over a number of years that’s really a fundamentally new technology that harnesses the power of the sun to provide a cost-effective way to treat wastewater,” Vaughn said.
The company basically combines two proven technologies: concentrated solar power and the sun’s ability to clean up waste. Focal Technologies’ “Ray” technology concentrates solar energy, much like utility-scale solar power projects, which have proliferated in the Southwest. But rather than using concentrated solar to generate electricity, it uses that same energy to purify water. Supporters of the “Ray” say it can break down organic waste, as well as industrial chemicals like cyanide and glycol.
“Our system can break down a wide range of contaminants, but we are initially focused on remediating E. coli and other harmful bacteria in human or animal waste streams,” said Eric Steinmeyer, CEO and president of Focal Technologies.
The $210,000 grant from Oregon BEST will help Oregon State University researchers study its use on animal waste at an organic dairy. Steinmeyer said the tests are just starting, but they’re looking forward to getting information soon to perfect the technology. Vaughn said the technology could be applied in industrial settings where chemical waste can be a big problem. Vaughn said the “Ray” could potentially help clean up deicing fluid that airports currently use to treat runways. It could also help purify effluent from mining operations, according to Vaughn. Using the sun’s energy to clean water has been done before - and developed in the Northwest. Beaverton-based Puralytics has invented three products in the last several years aimed at using sunlight to purify water.
One of the products uses specialized plastic bags to clean water - a technology that could be particularly attractive to ecology-minded backcountry hikers. It won a $250,000 prize in the 2010 CleanTech Open.
The second looks like a set of lily pads that sit on top of a water source and clean it. That nanotechnology earned a $53,000 grant from Oregon BEST in 2013, for the promise it showed at cleaning up small water sources. Again, hikers could use it, or it could possibly gain use in the developing world where there’s demand for technology that can clean water at a low-cost with minimal energy.
And third, Puralytics has a technology it calls “The Disaster Water Shield,” a larger water purification system that can use the sun’s rays to clean more than 160 gallons per hour. As its name suggests, one of its intended uses is to clean up water after a natural disaster or other major problem with a local water source.