Nano Nano

At the size of just one billionth of a metre, a nano is a very, very small thing. To bring its size into further perspective, it takes 100,000 nanometers to make up the width of a sheet of paper. However, the potential for research and at this atomic scale is absolutely huge, as properties of materials can radically change when their size approaches that of a few tens or hundreds of atoms.

Through its Institute for Nanotechnology, the University of Waterloo is leading the world in the development of nano-materials, nano-electronics, nano-instrumentation and nano-biosystems that will ultimately and fundamentally change the world. Through the University's commercialization efforts, nanotechnology research is also producing some of the most exciting startups to appear on the Waterloo technology landscape.

H2nanO, a startup founded by Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology research chair Dr. Frank Gu and PhD candidates Stuart Linley and Tim Leshuk, three of Canada's brightest minds in the field. H2nanO had its start in Gu's research lab when Tim Leshuk was just entering his first year co op term. Tim, who did his undergrad in Chemistry, had aspirations at the time to be a cancer researcher and was drawn to the opportunity to use nanotechnology as a microscopic delivery method for chemotherapy. He was also experimenting with using magnetic nanoparticles which can help to "light up" the location of tumors during an MRI."One day Frank came into the lab and proposed the idea of using the same kind of magnetic nanoparticles to clean contaminated water," Tim recalls with a grin. "I remember thinking to myself that this was a terrible idea."

The concept Dr. Gu was proposing was actually quite brilliant and Tim and his colleague Stuart Linley (who joined the project a year later for his first undergraduate coop work term) were fortunate to be in on the ground floor of its research & development and commercialization. Here's how it works. Recyclable nanocatalysts are wrapped, just like a candy jawbreaker, in a coating - in this case, titanium dioxide. The nanocatalysts are then introduced into a contaminated water source and are exposed to sunlight (or UV light), which serves as the energy source. The reaction of the coating plus the energy source then destroys the water contaminant, and the nanocatalysts are drawn back out of the water to be recycled and reused.

The approach has proven to be so successful in the team's lab and field experiments, it is able to attack even the most microscopic of contaminants in our water supply that traditional chlorine-based water treatments can't touch, eliminating everything from traces of estrogen, artificial sweeteners and morphine to illicit drugs such as cocaine. After treatment, the water is pure enough to drink. "It might be just a bit salty," says Tim.

While there is massive potential to apply H2nanO's water treatment methods to eliminate trace contaminants from the drinking water supply, the commercialization path in that direction is long and will require many years of validation, explains Stuart Linley. So in the short term, H2nanO's team is focused on addressing another immediate and high exposure environmental concern - cleaning the toxic water contained in oil sands tailings ponds. The trio are now connecting to industrial partners in Alberta and have been proving the process works in the lab using shipped-in tailing ponds water. The question now centres around scale. "We have proven the approach works," says Stuart. "That's no longer the question. Now we're focused on how it works on a large scale when we're dealing with 100s of thousands of gallons rather than volumes of 500 litres. For engineers who are used to working with nanos, thinking big is a really new and fun challenge to have."