Cambridge Forum and Venture Prize 2017

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2017

Ellis Davies reports on this year’s Venture Prize, presented at the Armourers and Brasiers’ Cambridge Forum.

With a granular adsorbent capable of binding and removing target micro-pollutants, including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, high-performance chemicals and heavy metal from wastewater, CustoMem Ltd, UK, has won the 2017 Armourers and Brasiers’ (AB) Materials Venture Prize, co-sponsored by IOM3. 

Presented at the annual AB Forum at the University of Cambridge, UK, the Venture Prize is judged by a committee of commercial, financial and scientific experts, and awarded to a project it deems to benefit the materials science community and have commercial potential. 

CustoMem was founded by Henrik Hagemann and Gabi Santosa in 2015 as a spinout from Imperial College London, UK, and was picked up by Imperial Innovation. The product, CustoMem Granular Media (CGM), fits inside industrial sized steel tanks, where it is able to capture pollutants, specified by the user, from wastewater. CEO Henrik Hagemann, told Materials World, ‘CGM is a proprietary material, using cellulose with surface modified chemistry, which has been designed to capture typically persistent organic pollutants, like the ones found in aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) – commonly perfluorinated compounds.’  

CGM is polymer-based, manufactured from the bottom up, starting with reprogrammed bacteria. ‘From the fermentation process, we make the material and sterilise it, in the same way insulin is made and programmed, but with a polymer material and cellulose based chains,’ Hagemann explained. The adsorbent does not introduce any hazardous chemicals to the water, and is manufactured through sustainable biological production. 

‘It is an intelligent adsorbent that focuses on pollutants. It absorbs the chemicals and then, because of the design of the media, we can essentially regenerate the materials and separate out the chemicals we have captured,’ Hagemann said. The media can be reused once the captured pollutants are removed with a proprietary wash, which can be safely disposed of or repurposed.

The company says CGM can be placed inside a steel tank, halving the amount of tanks needed due to its two-times higher adsorption performance and ten-times faster kinetics over traditional adsorbent materials such as anion-exchange media and granular activated carbon. It gives the same removal rate, but with half the equipment, which can cut capital expenditure for the user – as well as taking up less space. CustoMem predicts use at commercial airports, oil and gas operations and military installations.

CustoMem is currently building up to its first paid test in August, which will involve rapid accelerated column trials with relevant industrial water under industrial concentrations. These tests will run for up to 10 weeks, allowing the company to gain an indication of the treatment cost. 

The Venture Prize includes £25,000 for the winning company, which Hagemann says will be spent on testing with potential customers. ‘To be awarded the Venture Prize by the committee is a great stamp of approval, but more than that, it comes with the mentoring and connections that can really accelerate CustoMem's trajectory,’ he said. 

The Cambridge Forum

The AB Cambridge Forum is an annual one-day event held by the AB Company in collaboration with the University of Cambridge Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. Featuring a series of lectures, the event showcases innovation in the world of materials science, and also plays host to the Kelly Lecture. This year’s lecture was given by Professor Mike Cates FRS, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, titled Bulletproof Custard: Discontinuous Shear Thickening in Very Dense Suspensions, in which he discussed the jamming transition that a very dense substance goes through from a fluid to a solid state, known as discontinuous shear thickening (DST). 

Cates sought to demonstrate in his lecture that DST could be exploited for applications such as bulletproof vests. He covered recent advances in the understanding of DST – despite its discontinuous nature, DST can be explained by a smoother increase in average friction at interparticle contacts under increased stress. Cates posed that this understanding offers a strategy for decreasing or eliminating jamming. 

The event also featured the Gordon Seminars, a series of presentations and Q&A sessions covering a range of topics. This year’s selection included methods for making bubbles, sustainable carbon materials, nuclear magnetic resonance, MASERs and neutron scattering. 

The 2018 AB Cambridge Forum and 20th Kelly Lecture will be held on 12 June.