Could a nanoscopic particle developed at UCLA hold the key to solving California’s – and the world’s – water shortage?

A group of local entrepreneurs armed with $25 million in venture funding think so.

They have formed an El Segundo company called NanoH20 that plans to sell the technology to desalination plants worldwide – potentially increasing any plant’s fresh water output by about two-thirds.

“We want to change the fundamental economics of desalination,” said Chief Scientific Officer Bob Burk, who founded NanoH20 with two partners. “Right now the impression is that it’s expensive. We expect to change that.”

Invented by Eric Hoek, a civil and environmental engineering professor, the technology involves the use of zeolite, a highly absorbent mineral commonly found in water filtration systems. Hoek’s advancement involves breaking the zeolite down into supersmall “nanoparticles” and putting a coat of them on water-treatment filters used in desalination plants.

The nylonlike filters are used to screen salt and other contaminants out of seawater, and the layer of nanoscopic zeolite dramatically increases their efficiency. That’s because water normally must be pushed through the filters at high pressure, but Burk said the treatment reduces by 20 percent the amount of energy required or, conversely, increases the output of fresh water by 70 percent. That will make desalinated water cheaper.

The partners, who do not include Hoek, licensed the technology from the University of California, and received venture funding from Khosla Ventures in Menlo Park and Oak Investment Partners in Palo Alto. After spending several years commercializing the product, four months ago they moved into a 26,000-square-foot facility in El Segundo.

Standard desalination filters sell for about $1.25 per square foot, and NanoH20 will offer its product at “a premium over that,” though Burk wouldn’t say by how much. But the potential market is huge.

Currently, about 13,000 major desalination plants worldwide each use anywhere from about 100,000 square feet to 8 million square feet of membrane that must be replaced every three to seven years, he said.

NanoH20 already has a jump-start in the form of a commitment from Veolia Water Solutions & Technologies in Saint Maurice, France. One of the world’s leading water treatment companies, it has agreed to buy and test the technology.

Tom Pankratz, editor of Water Desalination Report, a weekly publication that covers the industry, said receiving a contract from Veolia is a big deal.

“That’s like saying you’ve developed a new tire and have GM agree to use it,” Pankratz said. “I would describe this as the next significant incremental improvement in desalination. I don’t see what could stop them from succeeding.”

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