NEWT Startup Aims To Make NESMD Technology Available for Water Desalination

Achievement date: 

Researchers at the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Nanosystems Engineering Research Center (N-ERC) for Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT), Dr. John Wang and Dr. Qilin Li, received $1.6M in angel investment in SolMem, a spinout company that aims to offer its Nanophotonics Membrane Distillation (NESMD) technology for desalination, zero liquid discharge and industrial wastewater treatment and reuse. Founded in 2017, SolMem received 2nd place honors in the 3rd Environmental Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Competition in Beijing, China. SolMem plans to demonstrate NESMD’s ease of scale and modularity during a pilot study in Brazil in collaboration with NEWT International partner, the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC). NEWT is based at Rice University in Houston, TX.


Clean water is essential for supporting the earth and its people; yet 43 million Americans lack access to municipal water and 800 million worldwide lack access to safe water. These issues can generate additional challenges, as seen with the root causes of some refugee crises as well as other instances of altered migration patterns among mammal and avian species. In response, SolMem’s NESMD technology can be used for a variety of water treating and liquid separation applications, such as humanitarian, emergency-response and rural drinking water situations, as well as industrial wastewater reuse in remote sites, such as oil and gas fields. As a completely solar-powered water treating system, NESMD also offers solar energy efficiency gains of more than 75 percent when compared with photovoltaic (PV) technology. When compared with reverse osmosis, the NESMD system lowers both capital and operating costs of desalination by 20 and 10 percent respectively.


SolMem joined NEWT as an equipment manufacturing partner in March 2018 and continues to sponsor NEWT research and development on NESMD. The SolMem’s NESMD system is based on solar-powered nanophotonics technology. Desalination occurs in a gradual flow that is generated in four basic stages. First, the nanophotonics layer absorbs solar energy to create temperature differences across the membrane. The temperature differences in turn creates vapor pressure differences which drive the water vapor to move or transfer across the membrane. As the water vapor passes the hydrophobic membrane, it condensates into clean water. The dissolved solids are then concentrated on the feed side where they can be further crystallized to recycle salts.

NESMD’s innovative energy efficiency gains are derived from the reversal of temperature difference polarization and from heating only the necessary membrane surface (rather than a bulk water supply). For low water cycling speeds, a low house power pump is required to maintain energy efficiency. Yet the larger the scale of the system, the more energy gains can be achieved.