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Scientists create a low-cost decontaminant that draws on solar light

November 23, 2017

The project led by Dr. Diego Venegas-Yazigi improved the efficiency of a titanium oxide-based material that has been optimized to remove organic waste from irrigation water by using sunlight.

This project involved the participation of the consulting firm H2Cuenca, which valued the contribution of applied research and technology transfer from the university.

A happy cost-efficiency relationship for titanium oxide improved to function with daylight was the outcome of a CORFO-supported project undertaken by the researchers Diego Venegas-Yazigi, of the Chemistry and Biology Faculty of the Universidad de Santiago and a member of the Center for the Development of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, CEDENNA; Marlén Gutiérrez, of the same university; and Verónica Paredes, of Andrés Bello University and also a member of CEDENNA.

The project sought to optimize the efficiency of a titanium oxide-based water decontaminant, using a recognized product in the market as a reference. The challenge was to keep production costs down. The scientists devised a way to functionalize the oxide with small particles and thus accelerate its reaction to sunlight (photocatalysis). However, the subsequent elimination of these wastes was complex, since smaller particles tend to be dispersed, making them difficult to recover. For this reason, it was crucial for the researchers to find the ideal measurement of the particles, so that they would settle to the bottom to facilitate removal later, thus combining low cost with high efficiency.

A solution for the country

The initiative was in the framework of a CORFO project supported by H2Cuenca, a consulting firm with vast experience in engineering and water resources, with links to the National Irrigation Commission. José Lagos, the legal representative of the firm, emphasized the important impact this project could have nationally, with irrigators. “It doesn’t help them to have a lot of information in books, rather what they need is to decontaminate their water completely, which would mean increasing production, having new crops, meeting standards set in international agreements (…) then there is the question of the very important relationship with a university”, he stated.

The civil engineer explained that this type of development generates a lot of interest. H2Cuenca deals with water issues in different regions of the country, so they know the extent of the problem, because while some valleys in the north have problems of naturally-generated mineral pollution and water scarcity, in the south problems related to the use of pesticides.

“We are very pleased, because we met our objectives,” said the firm’s representative, explaining that for farmers and irrigators the relationship between efficiency and cost should come together in an economical product that works in large volumes. “The big challenge is to take this to the experimental station. This is the first step forward and we must plan the rest, “he said.

The leap to applied science

This is first experience for Dr. Venegas-Yazigi developing a project with a private company, and like Drs. Gutiérrez and Paredes, he is certain that there is capital gained in experience. “The scientific part was spectacular,” said the academic from the Faculty of Chemistry and Biology, explaining that after years doing basic science, this took him to applied science, with publications, thesis results, enthusiastic students and support from companies. It is “one of the greatest joys” of his vocation, he added.

Regarding the relationship with the private sector, the researcher Marlen Gutiérrez, whose previous work was in the applied area, explained that the difference in working with a company is that the goal is to achieve a good relationship and good communication. “The mixture of what is done in a laboratory and what is done in a company enriches the project,” she said, and note that what has been learned so far, has encouraged the group to continue along this path.

Dr. Verónica Paredes, a member of the Center for the Development of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, agrees that one of the main benefits of this effort was learning the language of the private sector, but without doubt, it highlights the value of science with a purpose. “It is important to know that with this research we are contributing to solving problems facing the country. It is satisfying because one teaches and develops people, and this knowledge is associated with intellectual challenges and solutions to problems”, he concluded.

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