Bob Allen spent much of his career as an IBM researcher exploring semiconductor manufacturing processes. But at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., Allen is now trying to use his understanding of nanotechnology and membranes to come up with better methods for water filtration. It’s funny to think that technology that was used to make the fastest chips is now being studied for use in water desalination plants, which take the salt out of sea water.

We caught up with Allen (pictured) in a tour of the IBM Almaden Research Center. In an advanced materials chemistry lab, Allen pointed out that the lab developed materials such as photoresist, a light-resistant coating that is used to make different patterns on chips and is now used all over the world in the chip industry. The lab also developed materials for extending photolithography, or printing patterns on chips, for years to come through the use of water.

Allen said the lab created a new class of materials to enable new generations of chips. Now Allen and other researchers are applying their minds to cleaning impurities out of water. The lab has been recast as a water-membrane characterization facility. The team takes exotic new membranes and assesses how good they are at filtering seawater. The water is pumped through the nano-assembled membrane and the biggest impurities are blocked from going through.

“Filtration efficiency is incredibly important,” Allen said. Among those interested in the research: Saudi Arabia, naturally. Desalination and better waste-water reclamation are becoming more important around the world. The most critical stage of waste-water reclamation is using membranes in the last step of cleaning. It reminds me of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune, about the desert planet Arrakis.

“We should rename this lab ‘Dune,'” Allen said.

Check out my video interview with Allen below.


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