THREE-DIMENSIONAL (3D) printing has long been touted as the next big step in manufacturing, with research being done into everything from 3D-printed prefabricated homes to even 3D-printed steak.
With the technology's many possibilities, Nanosun chairman Darren Sun believes that 3D printing has the potential to create an impact as large as that of the industrial revolution, which brought about the large-scale production of finer textiles than women could knit by hand.
Instead of the dozens of strands of fibre that are currently woven with traditional materials, billions of fibres can now be woven into a square centimetre of space, he said.
For water technology startup Nanosun, 3D printing's potential lies in the creation of wastewater treatment membranes that are more cost-effective and of a higher quality than currently-used polymer membranes.
With the company's tireless research and development efforts, it has come a long way, creating viable water treatment membranes 100 times larger than the credit card-sized samples that they created.
These 3D-printed water treatment membranes benefit from needing fewer ingredients to manufacture, with 3 ingredients instead of 17 for typical polymer membranes.
Some toxic solvents used to create polymer membranes, such as dimethyl sulphate, are also reduced or cut out of the 3D printing process, reducing the amount of pollutants released.
Additionally, the cost of 3D printing membranes is also at least 25 per cent lower than that of traditional methods of producing membranes.
In the initial stages of its growth, the company applied its membrane technology and water treatment expertise to water treatment in villages across South-east Asia.
Nanosun managing director Wong Ann Chai said that in one of these villages that they visited, the villagers would normally drink water that came straight from boreholes in the ground before the company installed a mini treatment unit to purify the water.
This was a problem because the untreated water would normally contain heavy metals which would be harmful to health.
As the water was dug up from about 130 metres below sea level, the bacteria that lives in the water would also be heat-resistant since water at that depth would be hot from the Earth's geothermal energy.
"Six months later, the village head bought the whole unit, started selling water himself and used the money to fund charitable works," Wong said.
The company's research achievements have also been recognised abroad.
It was a finalist in the Global Water Summit Tech Idol Competition, London in 2019 and was the Frost & Sullivan Asia-Pacific Technology Innovation Award winner for water filtration in 2015.
As the company's technology improved, it has also expanded its portfolio of clients to include semiconductor manufacturers and incinerator plants to treat industrial wastewater and leachate, or water that leaches out from waste materials.
From its first order of S$30 for a membrane sample, the company has secured S$15 million in contracts this year and is aiming for another S$4 million to S$5 million in contracts before the end of the year.
In order to take on larger projects, the company has leased an additional factory space with an approximate floor area of 47,000 square-foot space in Tuas to scale up its 3D printing operations, up from its existing 12,000 sq-ft office space.
It is also planning to more than triple its headcount and adopt Internet-of-Things devices to manage and automate the manufacturing processes at the site. To follow through with such an aggressive plan, Wong said that the company is considering a listing on the stock market in the near term.
Furthermore, Wong sees the company not as merely a water technology startup but a platform for 3D printing other materials and products in the sustainability and healthcare segments.
Other 3D-printing use cases
An example of such an application would be in the creation of flexible solar cells by embedding the nanomaterial with graphene and titanium.
Such flexibility would allow them to be incorporated into curtains, allowing them to generate energy when they are in use.
"Electricity will be generated, while not as much heat will be absorbed by the building so less energy will be used (for cooling)," Prof Sun said.
Another use case for 3D printing could be in the area of face masks, where titanium dioxide or collagen could be incorporated with the printing process to whiten and apply such products to skin.
Nanosun hopes to be able to draw more talent across different scientific disciplines to help further such use cases to fruition and Wong sees water treatment as just the first step towards the company being a 3D printing platform.
"It is a lot of hard work today, harder than doing a PhD. . .but the dream is that tomorrow (our work) will have a huge impact," Prof Sun said.
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