Andy Krause is a senior engineer at GE’s new refrigerator plant in Louisville, Kentucky. A few years ago, Krause, whose specialty is water and ice dispensers, noticed that many customers started asking the same question. “They wanted to know what’s in their tap water,” he says.
Coconut Water: Activated carbon from burnt coconut shells filters out trace pharmaceuticals present in tap water.
Water testing across the U.S. has found traces of antibiotics, blood pressure medications, antidepressants and birth control in drinking water. Many water filtration plants lack the technology to handle the chemicals. Krause and his team decided to tackle the problem.
Krause compares clean water to organic food. “One reason why many people go organic is because of trace amounts of pesticides in non-organic food,” Krause says. “We had to evolve filtration.”
The GE team started looking for filtration technology that would eliminate pharmaceuticals and common contaminants from tap water at the same time.
The engineers ultimately settled on coconut shells. Burning coconut shells produces activated carbon, which can be milled and molded into filters. The coconut carbon is more porous and less dense than the more common coal-based carbon. “You can bind the carbon together in a way that creates lots of surface area for the [pharmaceutical] chemicals to bond with,” Krause says. Small particles are helpful because they catch larger impurities when they stick to their surface (process called adsorption). The right additives then chemically trap the smaller pharmaceuticals molecules (this method is called absorption).
The new filters are serving inside a French door refrigerators that GE started manufacturing in Louisville earlier this year. The filter removes 98 percent of five trace pharmaceuticals, including ibuprofen (painkiller), atenolol (blood pressure medication), fluoxetine (antidepressant), progesterone (steroid hormone replacement), and trimethoprim (antibiotic) from water and ice.
Innovations like the water filter help GE make better products at home, open new American plants and create new jobs. In June, GE announced it would add 380 new employees to the second shift at the refrigerator plant, taking the total to 772 new jobs at the factory.
The refrigerator plant is part of GE’s $800 million investment in Louisville’s Appliance Park, which so far hired more than 1,000 new workers this year.