Crown Family Professorship to support molecular engineering for clean water

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

The University of Chicago is establishing a professorship in molecular engineering dedicated to the development of solutions to the emerging crisis on the global supply of clean water. The new position will enhance the Institute for Molecular Engineering’s innovative partnership on clean water technologies with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

A donation from Chicago philanthropists James and Paula Crown will support the Crown Family Professor and director of the Water Research Initiative in the Institute for Molecular Engineering. The institute is seeking to recruit a leading figure in water resources engineering at the molecular level to the new professorship.

The Crown Family Professor will then lead the institute’s water investigations, which include purification via membranes, biotechnology and catalysis, and efficient use of water in agriculture. The initiative also supports collaborations with Argonne National Laboratory and the Marine Biological Laboratory, both of which are operated by the University of Chicago. Together with the Ben-Gurion partnership, these efforts aim to use nanotechnology discoveries to make clean, fresh water more plentiful and less expensive by 2020.

“We are committed to making the Institute for Molecular Engineering a source of scientific leadership for the global problem of increasingly scarce, clean, freshwater resources,” said President Robert J. Zimmer. “This challenge requires ambitious collaborations that include multiple institutions and multiple disciplines. The Crowns’ generous gift will support our partnership with Ben-Gurion University and research and education that make an important impact on this subject.”

The Crowns’ support for the initiative adds a new dimension to their family’s multi-generational history of giving to the University. The Crown family’s philanthropic legacy includes gifts to name the Henry Crown Field House, the Henry Crown Professorship in Hebrew Studies, and the University of Chicago/Chicago Public Schools Scholarship Program. James Crown, a trustee of the University and past chairman of the Board of Trustees, is president of Henry Crown and Company. Paula Crown is a professional artist and principal at Henry Crown and Company.

Provost Eric D. Isaacs lauded the Crown Family Professorship for its potential to spur new research collaborations at the University and beyond.

“This support for water-related research at the Institute for Molecular Engineering marks a new milestone in our partnership with Ben-Gurion University. It gives the institute new opportunities to connect with faculty members from several other schools and divisions on our campus, as well as with Argonne National Laboratory, which has been placing an increasing emphasis on the water-energy nexus,” Isaacs said.

Matthew Tirrell, the Pritzker Director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering, has already initiated an international search for the first Crown Family Professor and director of the Water Research Initiative.

“We have a great partner in Ben-Gurion University, which operates a sophisticated, well-developed water treatment program,” Tirrell said. “Our Crown Family Professor will play a major role in guiding the relationship between the University of Chicago and BGU.”

The Institute for Molecular Engineering formally launched its Water Research Initiative in 2013, in collaboration with researchers at Ben-Gurion and Argonne. Serving as the initiative’s founding director is Steven Sibener, the Carl William Eisendrath Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry and the James Franck Institute.

"Last year the molecular engineering of water resources emerged as one of the institute’s major research themes,” said Sibener, who also is an institute fellow. “After a very competitive process, we and our partners from Ben-Gurion University selected five projects for initial seed funding, and these projects are already making great strides into critical areas of water purification and resource utilization. Building upon these initial successes, we are now poised to take the next steps to grow this effort in water research to make it one of the signature elements of IME and the campus at large. The appointment of the Crown Family Professor will be a key step in this endeavor."

In these five seed projects, the University of Chicago, Ben-Gurion University and Argonne National Laboratory began applying the latest nanotechnological discoveries to create new materials and processes for making clean, fresh drinking water more plentiful and less expensive by 2020. Each project was headed by a BGU professor and a UChicago professor in molecular engineering or in the departments of chemistry, ecology & evolution, and physics; or an Argonne scientist in the Center for Nanoscale Materials, or in the divisions of the biosciences, energy systems, and physics. These projects are:

  • A hydrology project that traces water movement in the Negev desert soil using a novel krypton 81 dating method developed at Argonne and UChicago.
  • Development of nanoporous titanium oxide membranes that can simultaneously filter organic impurities and break them down catalytically.
  • Synthesis and testing of new polymeric coatings to reduce colonization of bacteria on reverse osmosis or other water purification membranes, thereby extending membrane life and reducing cost.
  • Characterization of the micro organismal population that colonizes membranes so that more effective anti-microbial treatments can be developed.
  • Development of new catalysts that oxidize organic contaminants in water.

“We decided that we wanted to tackle some big problems when we started the Institute for Molecular Engineering. Water resources is one problem that is high on the global agenda,” Tirrell said.