The “I did it” moment can change everything.
When Sue Mecham got a call from her mother Judy Riffle in early 2018 saying she had fixed the problem with one element of the process for desalinating water—removing salt and minerals—they discovered they could reduce the cost of purifying water by about 40 percent annually.
Specifically, Riffle developed a polymer that could be used in reverse osmosis that had a high salt-rejection rate and was chlorine-tolerant.
Before NALA Systems—a Durham-based startup whose name is an acronym for Nanoactive Layer Application—other companies have used membranes in the reverse-osmosis process that were not cost-effective because of the way the material interacted with chlorine, said Mecham, NALA Systems’ CEO and President.
In reverse osmosis, water is forced through a membrane to purify salt water, brackish water, fresh water, chlorinated tap water and even waste water. Mecham says there are reverse-osmosis systems in municipal and industrial applications and some small systems in homes. NALA Systems’ customers build and install those systems.
But one catch is that often the “feed water” that needs to be further purified contains chlorine, which is widely used in municipal, industrial and waster water systems to kill pathogens. Chlorine can clog many traditional membranes, which then requires more water and pressure to conduct the process. NALA Systems saves costs by eliminating this biofouling, which negatively affects the quality of the reverse-osmosis product and increases costs.
“Having purification membranes that are damaged by chlorine is a disadvantage for the industry, because it’s just a disconnect,” said Mecham. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Mecham calls herself and her mom—Riffle is also NALA Systems’ CTO—“polymer people.” The polymer chemists co-founded the company with Benny Freeman, a chemical engineer focused in membrane transport who formerly taught at NC State and is now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
The female-led company of five includes Michael Mecham, Sue’s oldest son and a chemist; Jay Tuggle, who previously worked for Sue at Polymer Solutions Incorporated, where she was Director of Operations; and Trevor Schumacher, who got his Ph.D. under Riffle at Virginia Tech.
How they broke into the startup scene is really a story of scaling their product, which they found can significantly reduce operating costs of reverse osmosis.
Their product begins with the polymer, which Riffle developed in the laboratories at Virginia Tech and patented. NALA Systems synthesizes the polymer in their labs and creates membrane sheets which are then cut into pieces and rolled into a spiral-wound element.
About 6 million of those membranes are sold every year in a global market worth about $5 billion annually, Mecham estimates. She says water scarcity and water contamination are more and more of an issue everywhere.
“Salt water is about 97% of the world’s water, so if we had a really cost-effective way to remove the salt from the water, water would not be a problem,” she said. “There would be plenty of water.”
NALA Systems’ cost-effective solution is going up against current membrane manufacturers, which make up 95% of the market using existing polymers, Mecham estimates.
“There’s just not a lot of incentive for the current membrane manufacturers to make it better, and so what we want to do is we want to bring this new technology to market,” Mecham said. “The reason why this is important is because reverse osmosis is the most energy-efficient or cost-effective method of desalination, or removing salt from water.”
Since entering the market, the company has received a SBIR grant of $225K from the National Science Foundation which helped them get the lab up and running and hire an engineer. Now, they’re putting in an application to extend that grant to a second phase, and they’re raising a $500K seed round.
Mecham says with this money they’ll laser-focus on offering pilot trials with customers so their product can become drop-in replacements for the current membranes.
“The idea is that this is going to make it more economical,” Mecham said, “in order to enable economies or localities that really can’t afford reverse osmosis now, to be able to afford it by that significant reduction in cost.”