IME Hosts Collaborative Water Research Workshop

Many of the most pressing problems in the world involving climate change, energy, and medicine are related to water — how it can be understood, transformed, and even filtered, reused, and made abundant in places of need.

Developing new solutions to these problems requires an interdisciplinary approach, and on October 8, more than three dozen researchers from a wide range of fields gathered to brainstorm potential collaborations.

Hosted by the University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering and including Northwestern University and Ben-Gurion University, the “Tri-lateral Workshop on Water Challenges and Solutions” gathered researchers in engineering, chemistry, math, economics, geology, law, and astronomy into breakout groups to develop interdisciplinary research projects.

The three institutions have collaborated on water research for years. In 2013, UChicago and Ben-Gurion launched the Water Research Initiative with Argonne National Laboratory to find new methods of water production and purification.

“This workshop builds on interactions that our three institutions have had for many years,” said Matthew Tirrell, dean and founding Pritzker director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering. “We want to inject some new life into our collaboration and think about our best shots for new, interesting, technical collaborations.”

The workshop offered seed money for the projects to “give us an opportunity to do things we couldn’t have done before,” said Jim Skinner, Crown Family Professor of Molecular Engineering and director of IME’s Water Research Initiative. 

Elie Rekhess, Crown Visiting Professor in Israel Studies at Northwestern, said collaborations like these highlight the importance of promoting Israeli technology and scholarship, while Noam Weisbrod, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion, encouraged participants to create real collaborations that were more than “one plus one equals two.”

“We feel this is a great opportunity for new ideas, things that are outside of the box,” he said. “Ideas that maybe right now look slightly crazy. Our seed money is exactly for these kinds of ideas that will lead to premiere results.”

Researchers assembled into groups to discuss water challenges related to climate, energy, policy, separation and purification, and basic science research. Potential projects included:

  • Using cell phone data to track how water is collected in developing countries
  • Harnessing solar power to fill wells
  • Developing membranes that remove salt but not other important ions from water
  • Creating new kinds of membranes for water purification
  • Using condensation to develop self-cleaning solar panels
  • Distributing lead filters to communities that are at risk for lead exposure in water

The last project would require developing a system for training residents to use the filters, and devising ways to model and measure the success of it, said Ludovica Gazze, a postdoctoral fellow in UChicago’s Urban Labs.

Liz Moyer, associate professor of geophysical sciences at UChicago, suggested creating a series of working groups of researchers and members of industry to compile a list of all the ways in which climate impacts different sectors. Currently, she said, there is no collection of the sets of conditions that would define climate extremes in each sector.

“It would be fun to sit down together and say, let’s come up with a definition of what matters to us,” she said.

Researchers will continue to work together to refine potential projects and will submit proposals for funding by the end of November. Tirrell said projects like these are at the heart of IME’s vision of developing interdisciplinary water solutions.

“At IME, we conduct basic science research while developing new technologies and processes that will help create both a safe supply of water for all while understanding water’s role in biology and medicine,” he said. “These collaborations play an integral role in this mission.”

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