Business

ON THE JOB

Boston startup aims to address water scarcity

Zachary Helm works as a researcher at Oasys Water, which cleans water through technology called ‘forward osmosis’ that uses hair-thin membranes and other processes to filter contaminants.
David L. Ryan/Globe staff
Zachary Helm works as a researcher at Oasys Water, which cleans water through technology called ‘forward osmosis’ that uses hair-thin membranes and other processes to filter contaminants.

Imagine if some of the most toxic and most dirty industrial waste water could be reused instead of dumped down the drain. This would result in water savings of billions of dollars, especially for water-hungry power plants and oil fracking operations. One Boston startup, Oasys Water, aspires to achieve this water recycling goal with technology that uses hair-thin membranes and other processes to filter contaminants. Oasys researcher Zachary Helm spoke about reclaiming industrial waste water.

“Water scarcity is one of the world’s most pressing challenges. Industrial waste water in particular is a huge problem. It takes 5 million gallons to do a single hydraulic fracturing [to drill for oil and gas]. A lot of this extraction is happening in dry regions, so there’s tension between scarce fresh water and the need for it in industrial markets. Remaining waste water has silica, sulfates, and heavy industrial salts — even more dissolved solids than in seawater. Oasys has developed a technology called ‘forward osmosis,’ which pushes the water through a series of membranes.

“I wear many hats at Oasys, including analyzing and testing water samples from all over the world to see what waters from different regions are best suited for our technology. I also helped develop Oasys proprietary membrane and the chemicals needed for the system’s operation. The project went from bench lab tests to pilot projects and ultimately commercial use in China and elsewhere. For me, it’s coming full circle — my background is in biochemistry, but I learned the nuances and behavior of not just water but also dissolved minerals.

“I grew up in a farm in Maine, and we used to have all sorts of water pipe problems. So even at a young age, I’d sit there with my dad, trying to figure out how to clean up the water and get the iron out of the water. Designing water systems for industrial processes ties everything together. No matter what industry, there’s a need for strong understanding of water chemistry.”

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.