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Israel-Chicago Partnership Targets Water Resource Innovations

Published: Monday, June 24, 2013
Last Updated: Monday, June 24, 2013
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Partnership is to create new materials and processes for making clean, fresh drinking water more plentiful and less expensive by 2020.

The University of Chicago and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev will begin funding a series of ambitious research collaborations that apply the latest discoveries in nanotechnology.

The announcement came June 23 following a meeting in Jerusalem among Israeli President Shimon Peres, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer, Ben-Gurion University President Rivka Carmi and leading scientists in the field. The joint projects will explore innovative solutions at the water-energy nexus, developing more efficient ways of using water to produce energy and using energy to treat and deliver clean water.

The University of Chicago also brings to the effort two powerful research partners already committed to clean water research: the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill., and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

“We feel it is critical to bring outstanding scientists together to address water resource challenges that are being felt around the world, and will only become more acute over time,” said Zimmer. “Our purification challenges in the Great Lakes region right now are different from some of the scarcity issues some of our colleagues at Ben-Gurion are addressing, but our combined experience will be a tremendous asset in turning early-stage technologies into innovative solutions that may have applications far beyond local issues.”

“Clean, plentiful water is a strategic issue in the Middle East and the world at large, and a central research focus of our university for more than three decades,” said Carmi. “We believe that this partnership will enhance state-of-the-art science in both universities, while having a profound effect on the sustainable availability of clean water to people around the globe.”

The first wave of research proposals include fabricating new materials tailored to remove contaminants, bacteria, viruses and salt from drinking water at a fraction of the cost of current technologies; biological engineering that will help plants maximize their own drought-resistance mechanisms; and polymers that can change the water retention properties of soil in agriculture.

UChicago, BGU and Argonne have jointly committed more than $1 million in seed money over the next two years to support inaugural projects, with the first projects getting under way this fall.

One proposed project would attempt to devise multi-functional and anti-fouling membranes for water purification. These membranes, engineered at the molecular level, could be switched or tuned to remove a wide range of biological and chemical contaminants and prevent the formation of membrane-fouling bacterial films. Keeping those membranes free of fouling would extend their useful lives and decrease energy usage while reducing the operational cost of purifying water.

Another proposal focuses on developing polymers for soil infusion or seed coatings to promote water retention. Such polymers conjure visions of smart landscapes that can substantially promote agricultural growth while reducing irrigation needs.

Officials from both the U.S. and Israel hailed the collaboration as an example of the potential for collaborative innovation that can improve quality of life and boost economic vitality.

“Chicago’s worldwide leadership in water management continues to grow, as we invest in our water infrastructure, creating jobs for our residents and economic activity in our neighborhoods. I strongly support this partnership, and I look forward to working with leading institutions like BGU and the University of Chicago to create innovations and opportunities for the future,” said Emanuel.

The institutions have moved swiftly following the signing of a memorandum of understanding in Chicago on March 8 to explore a research partnership that would innovate water production and purification technologies to meet a growing thirst for freshwater resources globally. Leading the efforts are Matthew Tirrell, the Pritzker Director of UChicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering, and Moshe Gottlieb, BGU’s Frankel Professor of Chemical Engineering.

For its part, the Institute for Molecular Engineering will commit tens of millions of dollars to the molecular engineering of water resources over the next decade. The institute is pursuing the molecular engineering of water resources as one of five emerging research themes, with plans to hire up to six faculty members specializing in this area. BGU researchers will have a significant presence in Hyde Park to further facilitate the collaborations.

“The Institute for Molecular Engineering aims to bring molecular-level science to technological problems of global importance,” Tirrell said. “Water technology clearly meets that standard, and the institute brings new ideas for materials, membranes, biotechnologies and catalytic technologies, among other approaches, that could address major needs in this domain.”

Tirrell’s and Gottlieb’s teams met for two days in Israel in April to explore their mutual interests in water chemistry, materials science, flow in soils and other porous substances, microbiology and nanotechnology. The first day of meetings took place on BGU’s main campus in Be’er-Sheva. The researchers reconvened for a second day at BGU’s Sede Boqer campus, site of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research.

A BGU contingent will pay a reciprocal visit to Chicago this autumn, following the final selection of their first collaborative projects, to participate in a workshop that will sharpen their research focus.

The Israeli government founded BGU with a mandate to spearhead the development of the Negev Desert. BGU has worked at the forefront of water-related research for more than four decades, having developed several innovative technologies in the field. Work at the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research has helped make it possible for Israel to produce more than 60 percent of its freshwater needs by desalination.

Tirrell’s team includes researchers at Argonne, which UChicago manages for the U.S. Department of Energy. Argonne has assembled state-of-the-art infrastructure and gathered extensive scientific expertise for the study of clean water technologies. The laboratory’s water-research portfolio includes projects pertaining to wastewater discharges into Lake Michigan, the effects of Glen Canyon Dam operations on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and carbon tetrachloride contamination of surface and groundwater in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

Researchers at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole have been prominent in bringing problems of water contamination to the attention of scientists and the public. MBL brings additional strengths in biological sciences and the marine environment to this developing partnership. UChicago and MBL recently signed a landmark affiliation, effective July 1, joining the leadership and scientific eminence of the two institutions, while bringing outstanding researchers together for innovative collaborations and education programs in microbial sciences, molecular engineering and related areas.

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