Water research rises at UChicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering

Water research is expanding at the Institute for Molecular Engineering, reaching from agriculture to medicine, basic science to product development.

In 2013 the institute launched the Water Research Initiative with Argonne National Laboratory and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Its first projects tackled challenges to providing abundant, clean water around the world, focusing on using molecular engineering to find new methods of water production, purification and preservation.

That initial stream of research and innovation is set to swell in the years ahead. In January, distinguished theoretical chemist James Skinner became the inaugural director of the initiative. One of his first steps is hiring five scientists or engineers to launch research projects in a range of water-related areas.

“We’re about to take this to another level—to expand the scope quite dramatically,” said Skinner, the Crown Family Professor in Molecular Engineering. “Water is involved in just about everything we do. Our idea is to identify really pressing global problems and focus on water’s role in them. And there are going to be significant resources to really tackle these things here at UChicago.”

“Water, and especially the energy-water nexus, is an important area to deploy IME’s bridge from the campus to Argonne,” said Matthew Tirrell, the Pritzker Director of IME and deputy laboratory director for science at Argonne. “Molecular ideas appropriate for the University can be deployed at scale through a national laboratory.”

The new projects will focus in four areas: producing clean water for people, industry and agriculture; using water to help meet the planet’s energy demands; examining the role water can play in mitigating climate change; and understanding water’s role in biology and medicine and using that information to design new therapies. Scientists and engineers working in these areas will develop new catalysts and advanced membranes for filtration, as well as new proteins and bio-compatible materials for use in medicine.

“This truly is an interdisciplinary effort,” Skinner said. “Engineering, chemistry, biology, physics: It is no stretch to say that you have to bring all these disciplines to bear on these problems. It’s exciting to be involved in something that’s so cross-cutting.”

A strong foundation

The work of the past few years has created a foundation for the initiative’s expansion. About 30 scientists have participated in initial collaborations in which the three partner institutions backed six water research projects. Teams already have published research, won government funding and developed plans to commercialize technologies from their work. Three of the research teams are working on new technologies for water filtration and treatment as well as catalysts to eliminate contaminants that are too small or too sparsely concentrated to remove by filtration.

The team led by Seth Darling, an Argonne scientist and fellow at the Institute for Molecular Engineering, has been addressing the challenge of “fouling”—a problem in which membranes used to filter out contaminants from water clog and become unusable.

“When stuff gunks up those pores, it is harder to get water to go through,” Darling said. “That means it consumes more energy or you just have to replace or clean the membranes. It’s a universal problem in the industry and currently there’s really little you can do about it.”

Darling and his colleagues developed a novel coating that can be applied to membranes meant to filter out material, ranging from large dust particles to ions a few nanometers in diameter. The coating, deposited in a layer a few hundreds of atoms thick, makes it harder for organic and biological materials to stick to the pores and destroys them if they do. The compound also renders out organic pollutants in the water when exposed to sunlight.

“Micro-pollutants like pharmaceuticals end up in our waste water, and there aren’t especially good technologies today for taking them out,” Darling said. “This technology may be able to help.”

Research may be the heart of the Initiative, but its work also branches into government and industry. IME, for example, is a member of a new citywide initiative called Current that brings together water-intensive industries, government, research institutions and the investment community to leverage Chicago’s water assets to create new jobs and technologies.

The water initiative’s partners have grown from the three original institutions to include World Business Chicago, a public-private non-profit, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and the Energy Policy Institute at UChicago.