ERC Proof of Concept grant to extract valuable salts from wastewater

January 25, 2024

Louis de Smet, professor in the Organic Chemistry chair group at Wageningen University & Research, has been awarded a Proof-of-Concept grant of 150,000 euro. The European Research Council (ERC) announced this on 18 January. With this funding, De Smet will scale up his previously developed method to extract ions and other valuable substances from wastewater.

In previous research, De Smet and his colleagues demonstrated that they can selectively remove salts from wastewater using a technique called capacitive deionization, which uses electricity to desalinate brackish water. This technique potentially allows the recovery of other valuable substances such as phosphate and lithium. The demand for non-renewable materials like lithium in mobile phone batteries and electric vehicles is increasing. Recovering such materials from wastewater could be an effective way to meet this growing demand.
Louis de Smet
Louis de Smet

Transition to practical application

In the new project, named "PassIon," the researchers will take the next step towards practical application. De Smet and his colleagues will further test and optimise the material of their previously developed current conductor (electrode) for long-term use on a larger scale. De Smet states: "We see opportunities to improve desalination performance, but our main goal is to intelligently use the method to recycle valuable substances effectively and sustainably."

De Smet is delighted with the grant: "This funding enables us to further study the potential of electrode materials for selective removal. Through a thorough stakeholder analysis in the interconnected sectors of water, food, and energy (the Water-Energy-Food nexus), we expect our research results to lead to innovative developments."

Value creation and collaboration

Thanks to this grant and planned collaborations (see grey box), Wageningen University & Research can put scientific results into practice. The project will yield significant benefits that extend beyond the traditional boundaries of science. The researchers were already mindful of this during the preparation of the project proposal. They considered how collaborations and scientific discoveries in this project can serve humanity, nature, the economy, and society.

The Proof of Concept grant

The European Research Council (ERC) annually awards grants for groundbreaking research. Their Proof of Concept subsidies of € 150,000 help researchers bridge the gap between their pioneering research and the early stages of commercialisation. The grants can be used in various ways, such as exploring business opportunities, preparing patent applications, or verifying the practical feasibility of scientific concepts.

In the current round, 102 researchers across twenty countries received the Proof of Concept grant. In the three competition rounds of 2023, twenty Dutch researchers received this subsidy, one of them in Wageningen.


The PassIon project is led by Louis de Smet and builds on his recently completed ERC Consolidator project E-motion.

Within the project PassIon, De Smet will work with a postdoctoral researcher and an analyst. The application includes the programme directors of the Thematic Technology Transfer programmes NEW-ttt (Wetsus/Water Alliance, Ronald Wielinga) and TTT-Circular Technology (4TU/TNO, Maurits Burgering), and finally, Norbert Kuijpers and Tania Mubita Zambrano, researchers from Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, to maximize value creation.

Collaboration Partners