An Alternative Clean Water Source in the Face of Climate Change

Scarcity of water is an increasingly pervasive threat due to climate change. As weather patterns shift, trusted sources of fresh water dry up, leaving individuals and industries searching for answers.

Drexel alumnus has launched a startup using electrochemical technology to be part of the solution.

Bilen Akuzum ’20, PhD, a graduate of the doctoral program in materials science and engineering, is the co-founder of H2Only Technology, a California-based company that is using desalination battery technology to create alternative water sources for farmers in the state’s Central Valley.

“These farmers rely on the health of the snowpack in Sierra Nevada to water their crops,” Akuzum explains. “Only a few snowstorms each year bring all the seasonal snow to the Sierras, which becomes the water reserve of Californians during hot and dry months. When climate change shifts the temperature by even a couple of degrees Celsius, one of those storms may not happen, and suddenly you lose a quarter of your water reserve for the summer months. These farmers are already in search of alternative water sources but are too far inland to take advantage of the desalinated seawater.”

The solution is to clean brackish groundwater from the farm’s deep wells. But the prevailing filtering technology, reverse osmosis, is inefficient, creating only one gallon of fresh water for every two gallons processed in the best conditions. The rest is considered concentrated waste (i.e. brine), which requires disposal at a great cost. H2Only’s electrochemical process, which uses battery materials to attract ionized contaminants and let clean water through, is 90 percent efficient, creating only one gallon of super-concentrated wastewater per 10 gallons processed.

“We’re saving our clients a lot of money,” Akuzum says. “In a drought year, farmers can pay $500 to $2,000 per acre foot of water to water banks and to other non-traditional water sources using reverse osmosis, which does not even include the cost of brine disposal. Thanks to our modular desalination battery system, we can process the same amount of water for less than $400 with five times lower brine disposal costs. And in our farmer-friendly business model, we don’t expect farmers to invest in equipment that they won’t use during non-drought years. They’re just hiring us as a service with a membership fee.”

Akuzum, who is originally from Istanbul, Turkey, is a first-generation college student. His parents are high school graduates and none of his four grandparents can read or write. But his academic acuity led him to the best undergraduate school in Turkey, where he earned the highest GPA in his class. He then came to Drexel to work on a master’s in undergraduate STEM education and his doctorate in materials science.

As a doctoral candidate, Akuzum was a research assistant for Associate Professor E. Caglan Kumbur, PhD and Distinguished University and Charles T. and Ruth M. Bach Professor Yury Gogotsi, PhD. Through a partnership between the A.J. Drexel Nanomaterials Institute and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Akuzum worked closely with his close friend Lukas Hackl, a senior PhD student at University of California, Berkeley. Their 10-year long friendship and mutual passion in engineering for societal issues led them to found H2Only together.

“The water business isn’t very profitable, because you’re competing with Mother Nature.” 
Bilen Akuzum

The company’s first research started on Drexel’s campus then moved to an incubator space in Philadelphia (NextFab Studio). But it was returning to California that proved the concept could work.

“We see this technology as a short-to-medium term remediation against climate change,” Akuzum says. “California was a perfect early adopter. We can also see how, in the next four to five years, the cost for building our technology will get cheaper and we may be able to bring it to second and third world countries where fresh water is even scarcer.”

Further development of the technology, Akuzum explains, also opens another opportunity for growing the company’s client base: mining.

“A lot of valuable metals, including cobalt and lithium, are mined using hydrometallurgical processes that require liquid purification. Evaporation pods and energy intensive separation processes are commonly employed today to extract the materials,” he says. “Our technology could be used to purify and concentrate critical metals and minerals more efficiently. And as a bonus, we’re also outputting fresh water that can be used elsewhere.”

Ultimately, H2Only’s vision is to perfect ion separation by developing a symbiotic hardware/software technology that can map out ions of value/concern in any given solution and utilize predictive models to leverage the most recent advances in materials science, metallurgy, and chemical engineering to offer industrial-precision ion-separation solutions with little to no waste. Akuzum and Hackl are currently in the process of applying for grants and fellowships that will open access to new research and business development tools including the Berkeley Lab’s own entrepreneurial research program, the Cyclotron Road fellowship. After finalizing their pilot system diagnostics by the end of this year, team H2Only has plans for a seed round by Summer 2021.

“The water business isn’t very profitable, because you’re competing with Mother Nature,” Akuzum says. “But we’re hoping that between these fellowships and continuing to improve our ion separation technology to decrease the costs, we’ll have a stronger path for growth.”