Andrew R. Barron

Charles W. Duncan, Jr.-Welch Foundation Chair in Chemistry
Rice University

Andrew Barron’s basic research in nanotechnology, long supported by The Welch Foundation, is delivering breakthroughs in water filtration with many potential applications.  

In 2010, the U.S. Navy challenged the team to explore how nanoparticles could help protect divers’ wet suits in contaminated water. The resulting ceramic membrane with microscale pores filters out contaminants from water – including oil, metals such as arsenic and lead, bacteria and viruses – without fouling or becoming blocked. Dr. Barron realized this approach could be adapted to a variety of other beneficial uses.

One recent project, endorsed by the Texas Railroad and Natural Resources Commissions, tackles the large quantities of water used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract oil and gas from shale rock. Dr. Barron’s lab designed superhydrophilic filters to remove impurities, allowing 90 percent of recovered water to be reused. The filters are currently being tested in the U.S. for commercial use.

In addition, Dr. Barron’s team is working with a researcher in Guatemala to incorporate nanomembranes in a portable filtration device the size of a refrigerator. The goal is to be able to easily and cheaply purify water in remote areas where improving people’s access to clean drinking water is a major health issue. Based on positive early results, Dr. Barron is working with Middle East Water Solutions for possible commercial use of the filters as a pretreatment in desalination plants.