Water

Water is essential for sustaining all forms of life, and the study of water science and engineering can lead to a better quality of life for humans. Although water is one of the world’s most critical resources, it is in dramatically short supply in many regions, developed and developing alike. Furthermore, in many regions, particularly highly populated ones, water resources are being damaged or depleted by human activity. Advanced purification methods and utilization strategies are needed not only to generate our fresh water supply, but also to assure the safety and quality of that supply.

IME is teaming up with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and Argonne National Lab, through the Water Research Initiative, to tackle many of these problems, with new membrane technologies, new catalytic processes for eliminating organic chemicals, anti-fouling surfaces to enhance the lifetime of water treatment equipment, efficient water use in agriculture, and distributed local purification methods—a smart grid for water. IME brings a multitude of molecular engineering approaches to enhance the purification and utilization of water. Water and energy are intertwined: producing energy uses water, and providing fresh water uses energy. This water-energy nexus brings the IME-Argonne connection to the fore.

Water is a promising substance for energy storage: for example, by photocatalytic “water-splitting” one can form hydrogen. Water technology and catalysis also play essential roles in hydrogen fuel cells, in which hydrogen is recombined with oxygen (in air) to generate electricity (and water).

Water plays an essential role in earth, atmospheric and climate sciences: it is found in aerosols, clouds, salty and fresh bodies of water, the ground, glaciers, sea ice, and clathrates. IME is pursuing multiple avenues to address the understanding and stewardship of Earth’s most essential molecule.

The importance of water in biology cannot be overstated. Biomolecules from proteins and nucleic acids to lipids and carbohydrates are solvated by water, and the thermodynamic stability and lability of these molecules and their aggregated structures depend critically on this hydration. Therefore, water plays an essential role in virtually every biochemical process, from protein synthesis and folding, to enzyme catalysis, to ion transport through cell membranes, to cell signaling. IME is committed to understanding water in biology in an effort to facilitate medical advances and improve human health.

Many aspects of water engineering involve understanding the structure, dynamics, and reactivity of water at interfaces and sometimes confined in nanometer-scale spaces. Thus, the basic science of such interfacial and confined water is an important research direction for IME. Many aspects of water engineering are really problems in materials science, and therefore we anticipate substantial interactions with IME's soft and hard materials efforts (for example, through the development of polymer membranes and nanoparticle catalysts, respectively). More generally, we also hope to connect in a meaningful way with the quantum information, energy harvesting and storage, and immunology themes. Finally, water science and engineering touch on many disciplines, from chemistry, physics, and biology, to biological and chemical engineering and materials science, to earth, environmental, and atmospheric sciences, and so we will be drawing on people with expertise in all these disciplines.

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