Study finds water treatment method can generate green energy

Study finds water treatment method can generate green energy
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Madrid, Spain: Micromotors that move on their own have been invented by ICIQ researchers in Spain to filter wastewater. The process generates ammonia, which can be used as a renewable energy source.

Now, an artificial intelligence method developed at the University of Gothenburg will be employed to optimise the motors.

Micromotors have emerged as a viable tool for environmental remediation, owing to their capacity to navigate and perform specified tasks on a microscale independently. The micromotor is constructed out of a silicon and manganese dioxide tube in which chemical reactions cause bubbles to be released from one end. These bubbles operate as a motor, propelling the tube forward.

Researchers from Catalonia's Institute of Chemical Research (ICIQ) created a micromotor coated with the chemical compound laccase, which speeds the conversion of urea found in dirty water into ammonia when it comes into touch with the motor.

"This is an interesting discovery. Today, water treatment plants have trouble breaking down all the urea, which results in ammonia when the water is released. This is a serious problem in urban areas in particular," said Rebeca Ferrer, a PhD student at Doctor Katherine Villa's group at ICIQ.

Converting urea into ammonia offers other advantages as well. If you can extract the ammonia from the water, you also have a source of green energy as ammonia can be converted into hydrogen.

There is a great deal of development work to be done, with the bubbles produced by the micromotors posing a problem for researchers.

"We need to optimise the design so that the tubes can purify the water as efficiently as possible. To do this, we need to see how they move and how long they continue working, but this is difficult to see under a microscope because the bubbles obscure the view," Ferrer explained.

However, thanks to an AI method developed by researchers at the University of Gothenburg, it is possible to estimate the movements of the micromotors under a microscope. Machine learning enables several motors in the liquid to be monitored simultaneously.

"If we cannot monitor the micromotor, we cannot develop it. Our AI works well in a laboratory environment, which is where the development work is currently underway," said Harshith Bachimanchi, a PhD student at the Department of Physics, University of Gothenburg.

The researchers have trouble saying how long it will be before urban water treatment plants can also become energy producers. Much development work remains, including on the AI method, which needs to be modified to work in large-scale trials.

"Our goal is to tune the motors to perfection," Bachimanchi ended.