AUSTIN (KXAN) – In response to recent natural disasters that have left millions of Texans without water for extended periods, a University of Texas at Austin researcher was motivated to innovate a device that can purify water from streams in creeks in minutes. 

D. Emma Fan, an Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, led a team that developed a mug-sized device that uses a small jolt of electricity to remove bacteria from water. They tested the device using water from Waller Creek in Austin and found that within 20 minutes, 99.997% of E. coli bacteria were cleared from the water sample. 

“I think we need to improve the resilience of society during these natural disasters because they [are becoming] more frequent because of climate change,” Fan said. “I have developed the technology in the last few years…We are very confident this [device] is working.” 

Fan said the key to the device’s success is what is called a “branched” electrode – something Fan’s team has already patented. The electrode has branch-like structures designed to be the same size as the bacterial cells.

When the device is electrified, the bacteria cells will swim toward the electrode, where they will be captured. When the water is removed from the cup, it will be drinkable. 

The device is not yet available to consumers, but Fan said she created a startup company to eventually commercialize it. 

Other water purification methods – such as water-purifying tablets and pump water filters – are already on the market, but Fan said there are problems with both. With the tablets, chemicals like chlorine and iodine will be left in the water  – though those chemicals are considered “generally safe” to drink. And she said the pump water system can be laborious. 

“Our technology is just based on a very simple electrical field,” she said. 

Once this device is commercially available, a person during a power outage could drive to a nearby stream, connect Fan’s device to their car’s battery and then have clean drinking water.

“I hope society knows what scientists are doing,” Fan said “I really care about people. I want to do things to help people.”