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Will pasteurization become a bit passe?

Israeli start-up offering food and water purification issues age-old cry: We can kill more bugs than you.

BET SHEMESH, Israel--Atlantium wants to take Louis Pasteur down a peg.

The three-year-old company, based about 20 miles outside Tel Aviv, has come up with a water disinfecting system combining ultraviolet light and concepts from fiber optics that the company claims can kill far more microbes, often at a lower cost, than conventional techniques. If a conventional water disinfecting system can erase 10,000 bacteria in a given volume of water, Atlantium will wipe out a billion or more, estimates CEO Ilan Wilf.

"We have a high kill rate of biological material," he said.

Some large food processors in Europe, in fact, are currently looking to see if Atlantium's system could replace both the water purification systems and pasteurization systems on some manufacturing lines, he said. Conceivably, the system could make it cheaper to produce things like cottage cheese that have high added water content and require water purification.

In making those products now, manufacturers first disinfect the water with light, chemicals and/or a membrane. They then pasteurize, or heat up, whatever the water goes into to kill more microbes in the added water. (Atlantium's system can't replace pasteurization for milk because the opaque liquid absorbs UV.)

Aside from killing more bacteria, Wilf said, the Atlantium system would give food a longer shelf life.

Coca-Cola's Israel plant is currently installing a pilot system with Atlantium's reactors, while a local dairy has already replaced some of its pasteurizers with one.

Though it hasn't attracted as much attention as alternative energy, water has emerged as one of the large opportunities in the clean-technology boom. The water infrastructure in parts of Europe and the U.S. is several decades old. Regulations are forcing municipalities to reduce chemicals like chlorine in water processing. It could take up to a trillion dollars to upgrade the U.S. water systems over the coming decades, estimates Ira Ehrenpreis, a partner at VC firm Technology Partners. Food processors, Wilf adds, are also constantly looking for ways to reduce costs.

As a result, companies like Atlantium and Sensicore have attracted venture investors. Giants like General Electric and Siemens have jumped in as well to develop water purification and desalination systems. In two rounds, Atlantium has raised $15 million and will seek more.

Like those of several other companies, Atlantium's system kills microbes by exposing them to ultraviolet light. In most of these systems, water in a tube passes over submerged UV lights. The light, however, is inefficiently deployed and gets dissipated inside the tube, according to Wilf.

In Atlantium's system, two UV lights are stationed above the water passing through a tube. The tube also contains a quartz insert manufactured in Germany. The light passes through the water, disinfecting it, but then it reflects off the quartz and passes through the water again for a second disinfecting round, and the process then repeats itself several times. By controlling the angle and direction of the light, the quartz insert effectively creates curtains of UV light that the water must pass through. Patents are pending.

"We're using principles of physics to move light through water," Ilan said. "Because of the properties of the quartz sleeve, it behaves like a fiber optic cable."

Earlier, the company used laser light, but it proved too expensive. Water purification systems can cost about $200,000, but even at that price, laser had trouble fitting within the cost constraints. (The company also shortened its name from Atlantium Lasers to Atlantium.)

Atlantium began marketing its products last year and has now entered 15 geographic markets.