“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.