Meet the UChicago engineer with a key role in Great Lakes water transformation

Prof. Junhong Chen of Pritzker Molecular Engineering involved in $160 million federal climate award

The Chicago-based Great Lakes ReNEW coalition has been awarded one of the largest, if not the largest, climate awards in the city’s history – up to $160 million over 10 years as one of the inaugural U.S. National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Engines.  

Its goal: To recycle used water to create a clean water resource, use the contaminants to build clean energy batteries, and solve one of humanity’s biggest challenges.  

Authorized in the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, the National Science Foundation’s Engines program is designed to support diverse regional coalitions of universities, local governments, the private sector and nonprofits to create solutions to pressing issues. Selected from an initial pool of more than 700 submissions from across the nation, Great Lakes ReNEW was named one of the first cohort on Monday, Jan. 29. 

For Junhong Chen, Crown Family Professor at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago and Lead Water Strategist at Argonne National Laboratory, the announcement is the culmination of years of effort – and the promise of years more important work ahead on a critical task. Chen is the co-Principal Investigator and Use-Inspired R&D Lead for Great Lakes ReNEW.  

A water quality expert with decades of expertise in real-time water quality monitoring and detection, Chen provided the scientific vision for the project. 

“Water is needed everywhere for daily life. For manufacturing in particular, it is critical to our economic prosperity. But water is limited in supply, especially fresh water,” Chen said. “The only way to get us out of this challenge is to be able to recycle and reuse the water.”  

Waste into wealth 

Chen heads the ReNEW program along with PI Alaina Harkness (AM’06), the Executive Director of the nonprofit Current, which received the NSF award. “This is truly a moonshot moment for the Great Lakes and Midwest climate leadership,” Harkness said.

The group took a collaborative approach in designing its plans to turn “waste into wealth.” 

Great Lakes ReNEW aims to “recycle” water. This will require stripping out dangerous “forever chemicals” such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of synthetic chemicals used to make many consumer products.

The task also will include transforming filtered-out waste metals into new types of batteries that help power the nation’s switch to clean energy.

And it will require removing agricultural runoff such as phosphates and nitrates from the water supply, putting them to productive use fertilizing new rounds of crops. Cutting carbon emissions, protecting public health and revitalizing local communities are all part of the process.  

“In order to recycle or reuse the fresh water, we need to take out everything else except benign constituents such as the H2O and good minerals,” Chen said. “But treating water itself is energy intensive. In the United States, we're using 3% of our electricity for wastewater treatment. That's quite a lot.” 

Reducing that 3% means not only saving money, but also eliminating the carbon emissions created while producing that electricity.  

“This work is all tied to our national and global goal of net-zero emissions by 2050,” Chen said. “Climate change decarbonization is tied to our end goal, in addition to addressing the freshwater challenge now.” 

The initial service area will be Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio, with Chicago, Milwaukee and Cleveland serving as “anchor cities,” but it will expand to include Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota over the collaborative agreement’s 10-year run. 

“The Great Lakes are a vital natural resource for the health, wealth, and security of our entire nation,” said Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. “That’s why I’m thrilled that Current was selected to receive this federal award that will help transform our Great Lakes region. Thanks to investments like these, our top-tier workforce, and our industrial resources, we’re leading the clean water and energy revolution.”

Everything but the water 

Stripping everything from the water but the water is a massive endeavor. It not only requires scaling and leveraging existing technologies but expanding the development of new ones in the region’s universities, research labs and private sector companies.  

This interdisciplinary approach already has tapped expertise across the UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, with Chen enthusiastic about further opportunities.  

“We're hoping to work in three major R&D directions,” Chen explained. “One is on materials platforms that will allow us to selectively separate these different components. The second direction is to explore novel processing technologies – biological processes, for example – to achieve the same goal of precision separation.

“And finally, along the way, we have to be able to monitor these various components to ensure our processes are working. That's where the real-time sensor network would come in.”

In addition to his own work on real-time sensor networks, Chen already has found willing collaborators. 

“In our advanced materials for sustainability theme, Pritzker Molecular Engineering has a number of faculty members whose work can contribute to this effort, including professors Chong Liu, Stuart Rowan, Matt Tirrell and others who are focusing on materials that lead to selective separation,” Chen said. “Certainly, I and colleagues such as Supratik Guha can contribute to the detection side.” 

“The UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering is home to big thinking and positive impact, and it is entirely fitting that one of our professors is a force behind this transformative step for the Great Lakes Region and beyond,” said PME Dean Nadya Mason. “Junhong Chen’s scientific vision and the work that will be done by Current will enable cleaner water and generate more natural resources – providing both job creation and a more sustainable future for all. This extraordinary effort highlights the interdisciplinary ideals on which PME is founded: Working together gets results.” 

Chen is working to expand such partnerships across the broader UChicago community, citing collaborative opportunities with PME Assoc. Prof. Andrew Ferguson on machine learning, Prof. Steven Sibener of UChicago’s Chemistry Department on water materials characterization, PME’s Educational Outreach programs on inclusive circular blue economy workforce development and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation on water technology translation. 

Chen cited his own position – a joint appointment between a private university and a national laboratory – as the template for the type of partnerships needed to recycle the Great Lakes and to face other grand challenges.  

“Our unique organizational structure at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering means we look at challenges through the lens of multiple science and engineering disciplines,” Chen said. “This creates a broad solution-oriented mindset. Combined with our close partnership with Argonne National Laboratory, we are together able to create an outsized impact on a critical challenge – clean water – that will benefit the region, the nation, and ultimately, we hope the world.”  

The $160 million over 10 years from the NSF will be bolstered by an initial $2 million State of Illinois investment.

—Adapted from an article first published by the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.