Rabia Nusrat, ideaXme’s Public Interviewer and an environmental engineering enthusiast from UET Lahore, interviewed Shayan Sohail Sarwar, a chemical engineer from the University of Engineering & Technology Lahore, Pakistan. Shayan Sohail Sarwar is a young innovator, and chief technology officer of Pak Vitae, a company dedicated to solving water problems for low-income communities. Driven by his curiosity from an early age in membrane filtration, Shayan along with his R&D team developed the world’s first intrinsically antimicrobial membranes.
Watch the complete interview here:
Using Engineering Principles to Innovate Water Technology
“Membrane development is a field in itself. However, I found the utilization of engineering subjects is imperative in the development of membranes. During membrane design and manufacturing heat transfer, mass transfer, thermodynamics, and particularly, fluid mechanics are essential parameters.”
“In membrane design, we first analyze phase diagrams. Noting the changes in phase diagrams upon the mixing of certain polymers in the solvent, allows us to see the points of polymerization and depolymerization. So, being energy-intensive, polymerization processes are highly expensive. In order to manufacture cost-effective membranes, you need to dissolve the polymer in a solvent and then shape it differently. So, we start by dissolving the polymer into the solvent. Now, when we extract the solvent, heat transfer is maintained in order to maintain the state of polymerization, because by controlling this mass and heat transfer, you can control the morphology of the membrane. If you are manufacturing your membrane quickly, you will have a dense sponge-like structure. If you are doing it slowly, then you will have a different kind of structure and the pore size. It depends on how you are going to utilize these mass and heat transfer operations. This is how membrane manufacturing is highly dependent on the basics of chemical engineering.”
Challenges in Membrane Filtration for Water Treatment
“Basically, a membrane is a screen that removes undesired components from the end stream of a liquid or gas. The biggest challenge in membrane filtration is when you filter the water to achieve the desired water quality, impurities start to deposit on the membrane. So, the deposition of contaminants is one of the biggest problems in membrane sciences. Another challenge in membrane filtration arises during the operation of the membrane when bacteria start to form a biofilm over the membrane, reducing the water flux significantly.”
“To avoid this problem, people use different chemicals to sanitize the membrane that will eventually damage your membrane in the long-term. Increasing the cleaning intervals will cause pressure drops in the membrane. So, you have to balance between feeding the membrane and the power that you use to counter issues in the membrane. To achieve membrane longevity, you have to compromise on water flux because you do not want to damage your membrane by repetitive chemical use. Biofilm remediation in PakVitae’s membranes has solved half of this problem.”
“The next challenge is maintaining a certain level of minerals in water to meet the mineral requirement in drinking water. The recommended 500mg/l of salts in drinking water is crucial to our health, particularly, in terms of electrolyte balance during diseases such as diarrhea when you lose body fluids.”
Journey Towards PakVitae
“I started working on hollow fiber membrane technology after looking at a product called LifeStraw from a Swiss company called Vestergaard that develops household and community products. So, we started working on that in 2013 and by the end of 2016, we had developed the hollow fiber membranes.”
“Developing a membrane from scratch is very difficult. You cannot just reverse engineer membranes by looking at other membranes from a specific company even if you study them thoroughly under a scanning electron microscope. The reason is, that once the membrane is formed, you can only see a single polymer. All the other additives cannot be seen in the morphology of the membrane. Hence, imaging the membrane will only give us the first lead and then we decide what we can do to achieve the exact morphology. So, finalizing the perfect dope solution for the manufacturing membrane is extensive and laborious. Achieving the same morphology of the membrane at the lab scale is different from manufacturing in mass production at an industrial scale because of the variation in equipment at the lab and on an industrial scale. On a laboratory scale, the equipment is efficient and expensive, while in industry, the equipment is relatively cheap. So, process parameters have to be changed since it is a huge energy shift from lab to industrial scale. In membrane manufacturing, it is very unlikely to get a hundred percent same morphology of different membranes because most of the time, you have a unique polymer and unique morphology. Here you are dealing with nano-scale fluctuations with your pore size in nanometers, so a slight change in parameters can cause great changes in the morphology.”
Improving Product Efficacy
“If a company claims that the product can treat 1000 to 10,000 liters of water, it is important to test it in the field to see how different constituents interact with the membrane. This is because longevity and membrane performance at the lab-scale can be far different than on site.”
Identification of the First Problem
“The first problem was that once the membrane was clogged, it had to be back-washed by pushing the water from the clean side towards the contaminated side periodically. Commonly used household cartridge membranes get clogged and cannot be cleaned. We tackled this challenge by adding an external plunger that automatically backwashes the membrane, preventing clogging. We confirmed our membrane’s longevity and efficacy through public distribution of filter models in collaboration with UNICEF, France, and the U.S.”
World’s First Intrinsically Antimicrobial Membranes
“After collecting water samples, we identified another problem in the filtered water. We were stunned to see contamination in water. Our hollow fiber membrane employs size-based filtration. Anything bigger than the membrane’s pore size cannot pass through. It means that a football cannot pass through a pore the size of a golf ball.
Surprisingly, the clean side of the membrane was contaminated with bacteria and it took us two and a half years to successfully incorporate anti-microbial technology in the membranes. Our membranes are the world’s first intrinsically anti-microbial membranes. Intrinsically anti-microbial means these membranes will remain anti-microbial throughout their lifetime. Even if you cut any part of it, you scratch any part of it, you erode any part of it, every new surface that will appear will be anti-microbial.”
“In the process of making our antimicrobial membranes, the huge challenge was to make nanometals intact with our membrane at each stage of membrane manufacturing. The reason is when you dissolve the polymer in a solvent all the nanoparticles get separated from the polymer chains. Doing it in a way that nanometals stay attached is what we have done successfully. It has not only solved household water problems but is also a global space water achievement as it has mitigated the development of biofilm.”
What Makes an Innovator
“You will see every type of innovator. There are people who are pushed into it, people who are doing it, because it is fun. You will come across with people who are doing it because it is a lifelong goal. It does not depend on your personality; it has more to do with your environment, circumstances, and background.”
Reasons of Lack of Innovation in the Developing World
Lack of funding and exposure
“Funding and exposure are the main problems in Pakistan and underdeveloped countries. Universities cannot fund big science competitions, exhibitions, or science fairs. They do not have industries here because Pakistan is an agricultural country, it is not an industrial country. The industrialization here is very limited, people do not even have jobs.”
Reasons for lack of innovation in Pakistan
“One reason for lack of innovation in Pakistan is industrial behavior because the government policies are not very supportive of industries. The government runs opposite every year and the private industrial sector is not supported by them. It has resulted in less or no investment in Pakistan for the development of the industry. As there is a smaller number of industries so these industries do not have to compete with each other as they do not have incentives in the supermarket. There are 220 million people and comparatively only a few hundred industries are making all kinds of products. So, they do not have any competition.
It is a huge market and it is a completely unsaturated market. It is a vicious circle because of government policy; there is no investment coming and because of lack of investment there are no industries. Because of the nature of industrial competition, there is not an urge of developing new cutting-edge products, that can compete with each other. As a result, we also see consequences on the academic side. Students are not involved in practical projects.”
Gap between industry and academia
“Industries should involve universities in projects because if they do give universities a chance to collaborate, students will learn about the technicalities in the world of engineering and science. Another problem is you do not have professors or mentors that are experienced in working with the industry and know about the market’s demand. They do not know how to optimize their research, how to control finances, and how to control time, so they are not experienced and then all of this is a trickledown effect and it goes to disturb the entire system.”
Problems in the sociopolitical system
“I do not blame the students and do not completely blame academia here. They cannot do anything because it is not about their aptitude or belief system, it is more about the economic and socio-political situation. The same students when they go abroad, work in top-notch companies and prove themselves to be top engineers and doctors in the world. Even the team that discovered gravitational waves had a Pakistani scientist. It is not a problem with IQ and with ability. It is a problem of a lack of opportunities.”
Empathy and Innovation
“Innovation is not discovering or developing something new but improving something that already exists. In order to innovate something, the first thing you need to recognize is a potential problem in your surroundings and how you can solve it. In order to empathize, even if somebody has a smallest problem with a product, it means that this product has room for improvement. Instead of being negative, be empathetic towards them.”
Conclusive remarks by Rabia Nusrat:
“In a developing country like Pakistan where it is not possible to have funds to make water infrastructure resilient, companies like PakVitae can ensure a promising future for our water problems. If academia-industry relations improve, engineers and scientists would be able to get real-time exposure to industrial problems and Pakistan would be able to produce more problem-solvers and think tanks in engineering and science.”
The original interview has been transcribed and condensed by Rabia Nusrat and Fahad Hassan Shah.
Credits: Interview by Rabia Nusrat, ideaXme Public Interviewer
With permission of ideaXme, a global podcast, ambassador and mentor programme. ideaXme interviews the creators and innovators who shape our world. They speak to all those who move the human story forward!™ ideaXme Ltd.
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