A drop to drink
Trained as a physicist, Susan Amrose was initially studying supernovae when she came to Berkeley, but she’s ended up working on a project much more down-to-earth. Ten years ago this spring, she remembers passing by the classroom where civil and environmental engineering professor Ashok Gadgil was teaching a course on Design for Sustainable Communities. She sat in on the first class, and wound up staying the semester. Today she teaches the course.
The Gadgil Lab, known for its revolutionary Berkeley Darfur cookstoves, was also working on an inexpensive and effective way of removing arsenic from groundwater in South Asia. The team had some new ideas they wanted to test, but to do so the team needed collaborators who could work with electrochemistry. Gadgil enlisted Amrose, who took it on as her physics dissertation.
“I realized this is where I wanted to be,” says Amrose, now a lecturer in civil and environmental engineering, “doing science that could be immediately applied to development challenges.”
As many as 200 million people are exposed to arsenic via drinking water, according to the World Health Organization. The metalloid occurs naturally, but overexposure can cause skin, lung, kidney and bladder cancer, as well as other life-threatening maladies. Amrose and her team picked up the challenge to design a new low-cost, readily scalable technology that could make water safe even if it was contaminated with high concentrations of the element.
“Arsenic in drinking water sources has been called the largest mass poisoning in human history, and nothing to date has solved it,” Amrose says. “The problem really interested me, even though I knew almost nothing about water chemistry.”
By 2009, Amrose and Gadgil had teamed up with Berkeley Lab staff scientist Robert Kostecki, deputy division director of environmental energy technologies, and the team had its first electrochemical arsenic remediation (ECAR) prototype.
The technology improves upon a familiar process known as electrocoagulation. Steel plates submerged in a large tank of water are electrified via a small voltage to accelerate rusting. Arsenic naturally binds to the iron oxides in rust and together the denser particles sink to the bottom where they can be safely extracted, leaving behind safe drinking water. As straightforward as the system is, it’s not only patented but also cheap, fast and effective, Gadgil says, requiring minimal resources that are readily available in rural South Asia.
Amrose now holds a patent with Gadgil and Kostecki for ECAR technology. The team’s systems are being deployed by the Indian company Luminous Water Technologies in schools and villages in India and Bangladesh. Closer to home, Amrose and fellow Berkeley alum John Pujol hold an option to license ECAR for small rural communities in the U.S. that can’t afford existing methods of arsenic treatment —including in California’s Central Valley, where groundwater contains some of the nation’s highest levels of arsenic.
Kostecki is no longer active in the project, but Amrose and Gadgil continue to work on prototype development, field trials and engagement with industrial partners for commercialization and scaling, while both also supervise ongoing research by current Ph.D. candidates with Amrose as the lead research scientist in the Gadgil water lab.
“I am very enthusiastic about the prospects of this technology to have enormous impact in India and Bangladesh, and maybe Nepal and other places, in providing arsenic remediation for groundwater that is used for drinking,” Gadgil says.
The technology may have a bright future in the United States, too. SimpleWater, the company Amrose co-founded with Pujol in 2013 to commercialize ECAR for small rural water systems, received a $100,000 grant from the EPA last year and is currently seeking additional investment funding.
Even as Amrose continues to advance ECAR in California and abroad, she also supervises other water-research projects in the Gadgil Lab related to fluoride removal and brackish water treatment in East Africa and North India. And she leads a research group through Berkeley's Development Impact Lab (funded by USAID and administered through the Blum Center for Developing Economies) and the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum (both of which also fund the arsenic work) that’s developing new roofing materials made from coated and compressed recycled cardboard to replace low-quality metal roofing in India’s urban slums, a project that itself has received competitive funding and is being implemented through an India- and U.S.-based company called ReMaterials.
Amrose is also a program director at the Berkeley Lab’s Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies, a research center that investigates economically sustainable international development technologies.
In all cases, Amrose remains loyal to a central tenet: bridging the gap between research and real-world applications. “A lot of great technology and research doesn’t end up making an impact because it doesn’t cross that chasm,” she says. “We can do better. We can really have more of a hand in making these things create impact in the world.”