CEE alumna Jessica Linville graduated from UT in 2013 with a PhD in Environmental Engineering where she researched improvements to cellulosic ethanol fermentation at BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) in collaboration with ORNL and under the direction of Dr. Chris Cox.
Today, she credits UT with giving her the opportunity to grow as an independent researcher. She was encouraged to think creatively, to look at the larger problem and select her own research focus, as well as to foster her own collaborations with other scientists at ORNL. As it turns out, these skills positioned her well as the founder and CEO of an innovative company called RWEDI Water, which was recently awarded a $250,000 investment from the University of Chicago Innovation Fund. The Innovation fund invests in promising technologies developed by faculty and students of the University of Chicago and its affiliates. Linville became eligible to compete for the funds through her post-doctoral appointment at Argonne National Lab.
The award was granted for the RWEDI Water purification technology that provides a low-cost, energy-efficient alternative for use in cooling towers. Cooling towers are used to cool a building much like home air conditioning systems, except that they use evaporating water instead of the outside air, which is more efficient for large buildings. As the water evaporates, dissolved ions cause scaling and corrosion buildup in the cooling tower. Currently, chemical treatments are used to minimize the scale and corrosion, but their effectiveness is limited. As the ions build up in the cooling tower, the water must be removed and freshwater added to lower the concentration of the ions. The RWEDI Water system uses electricity to remove ions that cause scaling and corrosion from the cooling tower makeup water stream.
Right now, RWEDI Water is focused on cooling towers at mid-sized institutions in the southwestern part of the U.S., such as universities, hospitals, data centers and airports. These types of organizations often have between 4-10 cooling towers and use between 50-200 million gallons of fresh water per year. Geographically, water conservation in the Southwest is more urgent because of extreme and lasting droughts. Additionally, water in these areas has a high potential to form scale, which adds to the difficulty of water conservation. Linville adds that mid-sized institutions typically have sustainability goals, making them more willing to adopt new technology.
The RWEDI Water system is based on Argonne National Laboratory’s patented “resin-wafer” material, which is more effecting in controlling scale and corrosion than traditional chemical treatment systems. It also achieves a 25 percent decrease in cooling tower operational costs by decreasing makeup water requirements by 20 percent, decreasing chemical use by 40 percent, and reducing maintenance costs. Linville built the business model for the technology and has an option for the license.
“Freshwater stress and scarcity is one of the most challenging emerging issues in the United States due to rapid population growth, urbanization, and improved standards of living,” she says. “With over 500,000 cooling towers using nearly 4 percent of all freshwater withdraws (5 trillion gallons per year), cooling tower water use is a major concern for mid-sized institutions. An efficient water purification technology for cooling towers will make an enormous impact of U.S. water resources.”
The funding Linville received will allow her RWEDI Water team to build and install a pilot unit at a cooling tower in their target market to generate critical performance data and to attract additional interest from sales partners and customers. The company will need an additional $1 million investment for the next stage in product development, which involves custom fabrication of the patented resin-wafer material, developing the final look of the product with the help of an engineering firm, and contracting with a manufacturing company to make it. RWEDI Water’s go-to-market strategy includes partnering with the water treatment services companies who service the cooling tower. Linville is hopeful that RWEDI Water will receive the next investment by the Fall of 2017 in order to initiate sales by the following summer.
“Even as a graduate student, Jessica was very independent and resourceful in coming up with ideas for the direction of her research and making the connections to see her plans through to completion,” says Cox. “At the same time, she has always been driven to contribute to practical problems facing industry. It is exciting to see her use her skills and interests to pursue an entrepreneurial opportunity at an early stage of her career.”