CustoMem is a startup founded in 2015 by Henrik Hagemann and Gabi Santosa, who were then students at Imperial College London. Their mission is to use synthetic biology in order to remove waste from water. CustoMem uses “a unique biochemical process to produce novel adsorbent granules, optimised to efficiently capture specific pollutants from wastewater.”
The problem of water pollution
Our water sources are becoming increasingly polluted with harmful chemicals as a result of human activity. The most problematic pollutants to deal with are ‘micropollutants’ – they are harmful in very small quantities and are notoriously difficult to remove. Examples of micropollutants include certain pesticides, high-performance chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. These pollutants get into our natural water supply from industrial, agricultural, or domestic wastewater.
The EU Water Framework Directive states that micropollutants are “priority hazardous substances”. Examples of these chemicals from industrial wastewater include Per and PolyFlouroAlkyl Substances (PFAS). Sometimes also called Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), PFAS can be found in cookware, sports clothing, military uniforms, food handling equipment, medical equipment, semi conductors, oil additives, paint, and ink. As CustoMem explain:
PFAS are highly stable and also very toxic, even in very small quantities. They are very soluble so easily get into water sources and they bioaccumulate in humans and animals. For humans, exposure is known to cause liver, testicular, and pancreatic tumours.
Many sites have legacy contamination from PFAS and for high-performance applications, suitable alternatives to PFAS are either not available or are based on very similar molecules that have similar risks. Solutions to responsibly remove PCFs and similar pollutants from wastewater are therefore essential to prevent release into the environment.
Micropollutants can lead to reproductive and developmental abnormalities in sensitive species. Evidence also shows that 90% of consumed prescription drugs, including antibiotics, ultimately end up in our wastewater. This has been linked to the rise of antibiotic-resistant organisms in the environment.
With a rapidly growing global population, the quantity of micropollutants – and, in turn, antibiotic-resistant microbes – is expected to increase in the coming years. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “antibiotic-resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today.”
In response to this growing global issue, this London-based startup developed CustoMem granular media (CGM), “a customisable, selective, sterile biobased material”. CustoMem emphasises that the targeted binding of this material:
allows better binding kinetics and higher adsorption capacity than ion-exchange resins and Granular Activated Carbon (GAC). This gives better removal efficiency than competing technologies.
CGM can not only capture and remove micropollutants from the water; they allow them to be recycled as well. Their application will be especially useful at places like commercial airports, oil and gas operations, and military installations, where there are significant quantities of micropollutants.
Earlier this year, CustoMem won a £1.2m grant from Horizon 2020 which will help to accelerate the startup’s plans for commercialisation. Hagemann said, “We are already undertaking initial testing with a number of companies and organisations including two commercial European airports.”
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
Sam is a writer who is especially interested in space exploration, sustainability, tech, agriculture, and nutrition.