A Bolt for the Blue: Decontaminating Water with Lightning

by Parmiss Mojir shaibani & Amirreza Sohrabi

This article is part of a series about the University of Alberta’s eHUB accelerator program which helps students turn their ideas into real companies. We will be featuring a story about one of the accelerator teams every Tuesday in the coming weeks.

When Parmiss Mojir shaibani was just three years old, she was hospitalized for the consumption of contaminated water after she drank tap water while on vacation in a small town. Fortunately, they acted swiftly when Parmiss showed the first symptoms of illness including severe diarrhea, and Parmiss survived. Since then, she has made it her purpose to ensure people have safe drinking water. Together with her husband, Amirreza Sohrabi, she founded Roshan Water Solutions, a startup that uses the team’s PhD research in Materials Engineering to build technologies for water decontamination.

When they first landed in Canada in 2010, Amir and Parmiss never expected to encounter a disease caused by contaminated water in their new home. Although waterborne diseases are not usually associated with developed nations like ours, the town of Waterton, Ontario suffered a devastating outbreak of E.coli in the municipal water supply in 2000. The consumption of contaminated water caused the illness of 2,300 people out of the population of 5000 and the tragic loss of seven lives. Hearing about the Walkerton incident shocked Parmis and made her realize that water related outbreaks can happen anywhere in the world – and that she wanted to help.

Surprisingly, the Walkerton incident largely escalated and put thousands at risk not because of a lack of  methods to test the water supply for E.coli but rather because testing results took two days to process. The delay put thousands of people’s lives at risk. To tackle this issue, Parmiss and Amir have developed a portable device that can be taken to any water source and more importantly, can determine whether or not the water is safe for consumption in under an an hour. Using this device, any municipality or governing body of small communities or First Nations can quickly test their water for E.coli – and save lives.

Another water contamination problem that Parmiss and Amir are trying to solve is pharmaceutical run-off. The presence of common medications in sources of drinking water is a growing cause for concern globally. Around 30-70% of the medications we take on a regular basis pass through our bodies unaltered and into our sewage. They then travel to our wastewater treatment plants, where current technologies are unable to fully remove before the discharge from the treatment plant is released into the environment.

As the scientific data has mounted, there has been a growing sense of alarm about the effects of these compounds in the environment. For example, Canadian Scientist Dr. Karen Kidd from University of New Brunswick recently discovered that the exposure of male fathead minnow fishes to synthetic estrogens found in birth control pills causes male fish feminization. Dr. Kidd’s research revealed that this exposure created a domino effect where the population of fathead minnows declined leading to decreased numbers of their main predator, trout. These effects rippled through the whole ecosystem. This is one of many examples of the destructive environmental effects of pharmaceutical compounds washing out from our sewage.

Parmiss (right) holding the VeloCens™ box used in their experiments

To solve this problem, Roshan Water Solutions has developed a water treatment technology based on the inherent cleansing power of lightning bolts. In what Parmiss describes intriguingly as “lightning in a cup”, Roshan Water Solutions’ technology can create thousands of small lightning bolts on the surface of contaminated water in a safe, sustainable and continuous manner. Once the lightning bolts hit the water, cleansing agents like ozone are produced, which in turn react with contaminant molecules and break them down until they are completely eliminated. While the technology is still at its early stages of development, it has the potential to help hospitals and municipal wastewater treatment plants to deal with the issue of pharmaceutical contamination in the wastewater. Roshan Water Solutions’ technologies are growing in collaboration with Dr. Mohtada Sadrzadeh at the Advanced Water Research Lab (AWRL) at the University of Alberta.

Parmiss and Amir are excited that Roshan Water Solutions got its start in  Edmonton’s flourishing entrepreneurship ecosystem. Roshan Water Solutions is currently part of the University of Alberta’s incubator, eHUB, which provides  student innovators with the tools and advice to create and test a business model and receive valuable mentorship from seasoned experts. As their company grows, they hope that RWS can be a both a source for innovation in tackling environmental clean-up as well as a local job creator in the growing green economy, bringing much needed diversification and hope for a clean-water future.

Photography by Monika Viktorova.

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