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Better Water Purification Methods Are Aim of New Research Center

New $10.75M DOE center will focus on developing more creative approaches and new materials for the purification of water, perhaps Earth’s most critical natural resource.

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AUSTIN, Texas — With rising demand and dwindling supply, water is perhaps Earth’s most critical natural resource. One way to get more of it is to find more creative approaches — and new materials — to use and reuse existing water and improve upon existing water purification methods.

That is the focus of the Center for Materials for Water and Energy SysTems (M-WET), a new multi-university research center headquartered in The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering, uniting researchers from UT; the University of California, Santa Barbara; and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The center has been launched through a four-year, $10.75 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and is part of the DOE’s Energy Frontiers Research Centers program. M-WET is one of 42 EFRCs across the country that will help accelerate understanding and discovery in an array of energy-related fields.

Led by Benny Freeman, professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering and an expert in polymer membranes for liquid, gas and vapor separations, M-WET seeks to address basic science knowledge gaps in development of next-generation, polymer membrane-based water purification technologies. The center will bring together leading experts from UT Austin, UC Santa Barbara and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to apply state-of-the-art materials synthesis, characterization and modeling to this research area.

M-WET’s associate directors are Lynn Katz, director of the Cockrell School’s Center for Water and the Environment and professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering; and Rachel Segalman, chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering at UC Santa Barbara.

Conventional water treatment systems can produce high-quality water, but treatment of complex waters associated with energy production, water reuse and industrial applications requires more advanced technologies. Synthetic polymer membranes can provide this level of advanced treatment, but basic science challenges frustrate widespread deployment of polymer membranes for water purification in applications important for energy. For example, current membranes lack selectivity for some contaminants, and membrane performance is always reduced by fouling, or clogging, of the membrane surface or pores.

M-WET’s team of engineers and scientists will combine their fundamental understanding of water chemistry, polymer science, surface chemistry and materials science with their practical knowledge of water treatment and membrane processes to begin developing next-generation membranes for treatment of complex water sources, such as water produced from hydraulic fracturing.

“The continued shortage of reliable access to clean water in many parts of the world is one of the biggest challenges facing humankind,” Freeman said. “According to WaterAid, approximately 850 million people worldwide live without access to clean water, and 60 percent of the world’s population lives in water-stressed areas. Closer to home, harnessing valuable resources, such as minerals and water, from the enormous volumes of wastewater associated with oil and gas production in Texas represents a potentially immense untapped opportunity.”

M-WET will focus on synthesis of new polymer-based membrane materials, characterization of their properties and discovering the fundamental scientific principles to eventually enable predictive design of such materials via computer simulation.

Conventional treatment technologies have provided water for municipal, industrial and agricultural needs for centuries. However, Katz said, existing water infrastructure and technologies are inadequate for sustainably meeting the increased population growth, industrialization and urbanization expected in the future.

“We must no longer think of water treatment as an endpoint,” she said. “Rather, the water we treat and the wastewater we generate must be seen as resources, and the pathway from source — be it freshwater, saltwater or wastewater — to product must be viewed in terms of nutrient recovery, mineral recovery and water recovery. Development of technologies to fulfill this vision requires fundamental understanding of the chemistry of water as well as the materials applied to recover these resources.”

M-WET is a cross-disciplinary research center involving engineers from across the Cockrell School: Tom Truskett, Venkat Ganesan and Nate Lynd from the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering; Desmond Lawler from the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering; Michael Webber from the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering; and Mukul Sharma from the Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering.