This simple paper water filter zaps contaminants like nobody's business

Mesopaper's pollutant-filtering technology mimics the human nose.

Mesopaper filters

Years in the making, these simple paper water filters have the potential to make a huge positive impact in areas that are pollution-plagued or lack access to clean drinking water. (Photo: Mesofilter)

Not every innovation out of Silicon Valley these days involves self-driving cars, security guard robots and privacy-compromising virtual personal assistants. Every so often, a low-tech marvel emerges, a newfangled creation that promises be both game-changing and life-bettering with nary a power adapter, digital screen or ounce of artificial intelligence.

Such is the case with Mesopaper, a new, no-frills paper water filter that’s cheap, convenient and ingeniously simple. Normally, most heavy-duty filters used to trap air and water pollutants require chemicals, electricity, plastic parts, pressure and supplementary parts that may not be easily accessible in emergency situations when you need them most.

Composed of three layers of bamboo fiber embedded with contaminant-capturing ceramic granules (more of that in a bit), Mesopaper is touted as being more effective and easier to use than standard air and water filtration techniques (reverse osmosis, UV filtration, chemical treatment) while offering more than 80 percent cost savings.

As Adele Peters explains for Fast Company, Mesopaper functions much like a coffee filter. To clean water, simply place the paper over a jug or glass and pour water through it. That’s it. As water moves though the paper, viruses, bacteria, radioactive elements and pollutants like lead, arsenic and mercury are removed while allowing beneficial minerals to pass through. According to Mesofilter, the San Jose-based startup behind the innovation, the single-step filtration process takes .15 seconds while removing 99 percent of heavy metals and 99.9999 percent of viruses. One square foot of Mesopaper can eliminate contaminants from 10 gallons of water.

When Mesopaper reaches the end of its lifespan, water will simply stop passing through, similar to other filters that have had their literal fill. And because the filter seals pollutants inside and renders them inert, Mesopaper doesn’t require any sort of special disposal to prevent it from leaching and wreaking further environmental havoc — it’s biodegradable and can be thrown out with household trash.

“Everyone deserves access to clean, safe water, but current methods of filtration are expensive, often produce toxic sludge and wastewater, and/or require large amounts of electricity — making it impossible to provide clean water to a large portion the world’s population,” says Liangjie Dong, co-founder and chief scientist of Mesofilter, in a press release. “Our goal with Mesopaper is to bring clean air and water to anyone, anywhere.”

And Dong really does mean anywhere. The potential applications for the versatile and quick-acting bamboo filter are numerous: disaster relief scenarios when a municipal water supply has been compromised or cut off; large-scale industrial contexts in which large amounts of wastewater are generated; camping and outdoor excursions where the drinking water situation is a bit iffy; and agricultural operations dealing with large amounts of polluted irrigation runoff that could potentially be reused. The company even sees it product being employed at nuclear energy facilities to purify toxic groundwater supplies.

water filtered through microfilter

Nose-inspired nanotechnology

A lean, mean, pollutant-zapping machine as uncomplicated as Mesopaper wasn’t hatched overnight and then rushed to market. (You can buy a six-pack of the filters on for $6.99, making it an affordable addition to household emergency kits. There are limited quantities available as of this writing.) It may be simple in use, but the rather complex technology behind Mesopaper took over a decade to develop.

As Fast Company details, Dong first devised the idea for low-cost, one-step filtration technology as a student at the University of Hawaii in 2005. Over a 12-year span, he has tweaked and perfected the concept, even working on it (or thinking about it, at least) while imprisoned for nine months in a Chinese jail for penning a blog post on water pollution that rubbed officials the wrong way. The final step was marrying his innovation with a direct-to-consumer paper filter.

That said, a bulk of the filter's development revolved around Mesoopaper's secret weapon: the aforementioned ceramic granules. Sandwiched between two layers of bamboo fiber, the itty-bitty natural clay pellets are behind the startup's patented MesoNose filtration technology, named so because of its similarities to the pollutant-trapping power of the human schnoz. Only 40-50 nanometers in size, the natural clay granules are covered with millions of pores — or “noses” — that contain tiny iron needles that act as hooks to trap and immobilize viruses and microscopic contaminants much like nose hair does.

Mesonose granules Mesopaper is embedded with tiny granules with "noses" that trap viruses, heavy metals and other health-compromising elements found in water. (Photo: Mesofilter)

Dong hopes his pollutant-eliminating “nose” filters will eventually drop further in price so that they can be used in developing areas where clean, safe drinking water is scarce to non-existent. According to estimates shared by Mesofilter, more than one-third of the world’s population will lack access to clean drinking water by 2025. Dong also wants to see the technology applied to air filtration given that Mesopaper can also easily scrub pollutant-choked air in addition to contaminated water.

“Radioactive contaminants in water threaten hundreds of millions of lives every day, especially in developing countries,” said Boris Faybishenko, a staff scientist at California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “There is a huge need for simple solutions to treat uranium-and-radium contaminated water. Whether it’s for a rural home’s drinking water, or for a community water treatment plant, Mesopaper makes clean and safe drinking water accessible to everyone.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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