Aquaporin water purification based on ‘billions of years of evolution’

Peter Holme Jensen explains the Nobel prize winning discovery that powers his water purification technology


Water purification is an $800bn market, with $27bn in household water purification – something that’s often necessary in markets like China, India, and Flint, Michigan. Taking inspiration from nature, Peter Holme Jensen from Aquaporin has developed a new method of purifying water, and so capture some of that market. Peter explains how the company is named after the natural protein it uses – the Aquaporin water channel, the discovery of which won Peter Agre a Nobel prize in 2003. By combining the Aquaporin protein with artificial membranes, the business has developed innovative new forward osmosis and tap water reverse osmosis water purifiers that save energy and deliver high quality water.

European CEO: Peter, let’s start with the technology; what’s the innovation you’re bringing to market?

Peter Holme Jensen: Well, the innovation is actually nature’s innovation. A protein – the aquaporin water channel – that filtrates water 100 percent selectively and extremely efficiently.

This molecule filtrates water in all living cells; it filtrates water in your body, as we speak. It filtrates water through the roots of trees, up 30 metres to the top of the tree. And in all living cells you have this aquaporin water channel. Without that there wouldn’t be life on Earth.

We have then taken this protein from nature, and produced it, and purified it, and then we have incorporated it into a more artificial membrane that is industrially scalable and robust. But the core component is nature’s own. So, we stand on the shoulders of a couple of billions of years of evolution, with our technology.

European CEO: Aquaporin started 15 years ago; tell me about that journey.

Peter Holme Jensen: The story of Aquaporin started 15 years ago, in 2003; when the Nobel laureate Peter Agre got the Nobel Prize for the discovery. That inspired us together with some other scientific work that me and the co-founder Morten Jensen did back in 2003. And then we started working on the idea of, why don’t we make a technology and a company that focuses on reusing nature’s own way of filtrating water?

We then incorporated the company back in 2005, and we used the first 10 years of Aquaporin’s life to develop the technology.

That’s quite a long time to develop a technology, but it’s because we needed to bring together so many different scientific areas. We have molecular biologists, we have biophysicists, we have biochemists, we have engineers, and we have plumbers. So, we start in molecular biology, and we end up in plumbing! That’s a lot of scientific fields we need to bring together. I think that would have been the biggest challenge.

European CEO: You offer two products: forward osmosis and tap water reverse osmosis; can you explain the difference, and the different markets that they’re for?

Peter Holme Jensen: The tap water reverse osmosis membranes; they go into the household water purifiers as a new component. The market is drinking water for households. Obviously that’s a global market, but it’s very big in countries where the infrastructure has not followed the financial growth.

Our second product, the forward osmosis membranes, is a more emerging market. It’s a new technology where you can actually purify water in your forward osmosis process, with no use of energy. Because you use osmosis as the potential energy for extracting water. So for the tap water reverse osmosis membranes, you apply pressure to force the water through the membrane. In forward osmosis you actually apply zero bars of pressure, but you extract the water. So rather than trying to filtrate out the pollutants, you extract the water away from the pollutants. That creates a new component for other companies to make more intelligent water treatment systems.

European CEO: What does the future of the water purification industry look like, and what’s Aquaporin’s position within it?

Peter Holme Jensen: I would say it is actually the only market that I can guarantee you will be there in 100 years time. It was there 100 years ago, 1,000 years ago, and it will also be there 1,000 years from now. Because you need water, and I need water, and all industries around the world need water.

The general water treatment market is one of the biggest in the world. It’s only oil and energy that is bigger. The general market grows around four percent every year. And if you look particularly into our entry market, being the household water purifier market, it’s actually growing around 16 percent annually.

And when we look at water treatment in general, it should always be seen in context with energy consumption. The reason why there’s so many people around the world with no access to clean drinking water is because they have no access to the energy needs that are required today with the present technologies.

What we offer is a product that other companies can integrate into their systems. In simple terms: we make the coffee filter, somebody else makes the coffee machine.

The selling point for the technology is, it’s energy savings, and it’s high quality in your product water. And that’s what all industries in water treatment want.

European CEO: Peter, thank you very much.

Peter Holme Jensen: Thank you.