MISSISSAUGA — When most people look at a shrimp they see a tasty party snack that goes well with garlic dip. But to the folks at Mississauga tech firm NanoStruck, they are one of nature's finest filtration devices — and one they're using to clean water around the world.
The small but ambitious firm, based in the city's north end, is using a pioneering "molecular sponge" based on compounds found in the shells of crustaceans like shrimp and lobster to develop filtration systems that can take filthy water from industry and clean it so it can be reused.
"If you think of a shrimp in a dirty harbour, the shrimp is kept alive even if the harbour is very polluted and dirty because the shell around it is very effective as a filter in nature," explained NanoStruck CEO Bundeep Singh Rangar. "Scientists have known for years that this is a very effective answer in nature for water filtration. The question is how do you take that shell and repurpose that for human purposes and industrial purposes?"
The answer was cracked by scientists at the University of Saskatchewan who spent eight years developing a power-like "nano-media" that can be tuned to trap particular contaminants at the molecular level and bind to them, making them inert.
NanoStruck uses the technology in conjunction with other techniques like ultrasonic waves and electrical coagulation that break down organic particles and oils.
Rangar believes the innovation will allow the company to significantly reduce the costs of cleaning water in industrial and private settings because it doesn't use chemicals and is more energy efficient than other filtration technologies.
So confident is the company in the system that in October it changed its name from BlueGold to NanoStruck to emphasize the nanotechnology aspect of its product lines.
The company has already installed the technology in the Mexican city of Zapopan, where it is being used to turn runoff from a landfill site into water clean enough to be used in agriculture. Closer to home, it has also struck a deal to clean the wastewater generated by a Go Transit vehicle cleaning facility in Halton.
In addition to cleaning water for reuse, the company has identified a potentially lucrative sideline in recovering the tiny quantities of precious metals, such as gold and platinum, left in wastewater from the mining industry. Estimates put the value of these so-called "tailings" sitting in artificial ponds and lakes around the world at as much as $1 trillion, but it has proven difficult to find an economically viable method of extracting them. NanoStruck believes it can use its molecular sponge to mop up the traces of gold, silver and platinum and turn them into a potential cash cow for the mining industry.
"In many cases the tailings are not even sitting on a company's balance sheet as value," said Rangar, "They have already expensed this before as waste."
NanoStruck says its tests on water samples from mining operations in southern Africa have shown it can retrieve more than 80 per cent of some of the precious metals they contain.