UChicago Joins City-Wide Push for Water Research

City sees opportunity in plentiful supply of fresh water.

By Greg Ross

UChicago researchers have joined a consortium of regional research institutions, private enterprise, and government organizations to play a prominent role in Current, a new Chicago-based public-private initiative that aims to take on today’s most pressing water challenges.

Current hopes to “advance the efficiency and resiliency of water systems, develop and deploy innovative water technology solutions to safeguard clean water and improve wastewater treatment, and drive increased investment and employment in the water industry,” according to a press release.

The Institute of Molecular Engineering (IME)’s Water Research Initiative is pursuing several projects that focus on improving the functionality of water systems. A few of the initiative’s projects include chemical techniques to remove water contaminants, advanced filtration technologies, and research on underground water aquifers. Steven J. Sibener, Carl William Eisendrath Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry, heads the initiative. “This is a very exciting time for the Water Research Initiative as we evolve from its launch phase to ongoing, larger-scale research horizons,” he said.

This is not the first time UChicago researchers have dipped their toes into water research. In 2013, UChicago and Ben-Gurion University in Israel formed a partnership to advance water innovation. Unlike Chicago, Israel is not endowed with plentiful sources of freshwater, so Ben-Gurion developed efficient water systems that desalinate and reuse water. UChicago’s deep well of scientific resources appealed to Ben-Gurion, and the two institutions embarked on a collaboration to make fresh water around the world cheaper and plentiful by 2020.

According to a press release from World Business Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel hopes Current will vault Chicago into the “forefront of the water economy,” taking advantage of the city’s existing water infrastructure and lakefront location. Turning Chicago into a test-bed of water technology is crucial in positioning the city as a global leader in water technology, said Sharon Feng, Senior Associate Dean of the IME.

In an interview, Feng, who serves on the advisory committee for the formation of Current, stressed the importance of amassing a concentration of water technology and assets to attract “water-based and water-intensive” industries. Along with Current’s other partner institutions, which include Northwestern, the University of Illinois, and Argonne National Laboratory, UChicago offers the research resources to provide a platform for industry innovation.

“UChicago brings interdisciplinary expertise to the table,” said Feng, noting the potential for IME water research to make progress in areas such the “water-energy nexus,” the intersection at which energy production and water systems meet. In January, the University announced the establishment of the Crown Family Professorship to lead the IME’s water initiatives. The IME is in the process of hiring a top water researcher to fill this position.

Matthew Tirrell, director of the IME, said in a written statement, “Current will shine a bigger spotlight on a wide and growing range of Chicago-based innovations in water-related technologies. The University of Chicago is playing an integral role in the efforts of Current to bring together universities, national laboratories, industry and new ventures to tackle this important societal issue.”

The University’s foray into aqueous research comes at a time at which clean water is increasingly scarce and valuable. Drought has devastated California and contaminated water has plagued Flint, MI. On March 22, the first-ever White House Water Summit highlighted the Obama administration’s efforts to increase drought relief plans, support water research, and finance innovative water initiatives. The summit featured Current as one of the many promising water initiatives taking place nationwide.

Sibener remarked in a phone interview that while the University has “always had the capability to pursue water research,” its recent focus on water research “arrived on the scene at a very useful time to have real-world impact.”