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Green Separations

Shreya Dave’s Via Separations could eliminate up to 90 percent of the energy used in industrial processes to separate chemicals for the food and beverage industry.


Enormous amounts of energy are used during the industrial processes to separate chemicals for the food, beverages, drugs and other industries. A new filtration technology, pioneered by Shreya Dave during her Ph.D. research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), now aims to eliminate up to 90 percent of this energy use. 

Excerpts from an interview with Dave, co-founder and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts-based start-up, Via Separations.

 

What developed your interest in the field of science, especially climate change? 

I was fortunate to have an awesome science teacher growing up, Mr. Griffin, who totally changed the world for me, in terms of sustainability and climate change, well before “An Inconvenient Truth” and other educational resources were available. My parents also encouraged me to learn about the world around me. I remember flipping through the newspaper when I was in high school, always searching for the one science article every week that mentioned climate change. We’ve definitely come a long way since then. 

How did you discover the Via NUfiltration platform that eventually led to Via Separations?

When I was a graduate student at MIT, we were working to develop a water desalination membrane—pulling salt away from water—to help create fresh water. We worked with something called graphene oxide. It was a really valuable research experience that taught me a lot about the material sciences. But, at the end of the day, the cost of this material was relatively high, and was not going to really change the price of water because of the many outside market forces. 

Later on, I came across an article in a journal about chemical separations, and how almost 12 percent of U.S. energy consumption is spent on thermal separations like distillation. It made me connect the idea of graphene oxide that we had been researching, and reconsidering that filtering process with a different set of industrial-scale process. After speaking to a bunch of different customers, we concluded that our graphene oxide filter could have a big impact and possibly eliminate 90 percent of the energy used in thermal separations.

Could you briefly explain how the Via NUfiltration platform works?

The majority of chemical separations are done thermally. The analogy I would like to use here is that of boiling off all the water in a pot of pasta, instead of pouring it through a strainer. Using a strainer would be much more efficient, and save you time and energy. 

Our focus was essentially to develop the membranes and materials to create a new type of “strainer” to facilitate chemical separations. Ceramic membranes, which have been used in the past, can only separate molecules and compounds so small. The Via NUfiltration platform introduces a new material—graphene oxide—for nanoscale molecular filtration.

Why did you decide to focus on the food and beverage industry? 

The food and beverage industry stood out to us for a couple of reasons. First, it is very innovative and moves very quickly on new technologies when they are to its advantage. The second big reason is that the industry really understands membranes and filters. 

For us, it saves a lot of time not having to educate the customer on the technology. It’s a very compelling market for a start-up company, since food is such an important global resource. 

Could you share any update about the progress made with prototyping or real-world testing? 

We’ve been able to scale up the technology and deliver a pilot product, which is very exciting. At this point, we’ve been able to answer virtually all of the questions that are science-based. Now, it’s a matter of focusing on the engineering side and further implementation. 

In the future, what other industries would you like to explore with Via Separations?

The energy consumed in the production of some of the things we use every day, like rubber and plastic bags, could be drastically reduced. This could mean a drop in energy consumption or even an increase in production. The petrochemical industry has some interesting applications; there are some important gas separation processes that we would like to address one day.

 

Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.