By Carla Reiter
The Water Research Initiative of the Institute for Molecular Engineering has added a sixth research project to the original five that received funding last year.
The six projects are for research on new materials and methods to make clean water more accessible and less expensive. These seed projects involve physicists, chemists, geoscientists, environmentalists and molecular engineers working in collaborations involving scientists at the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
“The concept was to focus initially on scientific and technical matters: applying chemistry and nano-materials to issues pertaining to water purification and sustainability,” said Steven Sibener, initiative director and the Carl William Eisendrath Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry and the James Franck Institute.
Scientists can engineer nano-materials—structures built from ensembles of molecules or atoms on a scale 10 to 50 times larger than that of single molecules—so that they can be “tuned” to meet the demands of a particular task. One such objective is water filtration.
Current filtration methods use membranes to remove salts and minerals from water. “But as a result of human activity, water is contaminated by harmful organic materials and micro-organisms and these are not removed by present membrane technology,” said Moshe Gottlieb, who heads the Ben-Gurion University arm of the initiative.
MATHEMATICALLY MODELING PATTERNS
The newest project, involving Argonne and BGU, will benefit agriculture, green roofs, bioswales and engineered installations for storm water management. The project builds on the work of BGU scientists, who have developed a mathematical model that accurately represents patterns of plant and root growth under desert water conditions.
Project scientists aim to expand this model for application to environments that contain two major vegetation types, such as woody plants and trees, or shrubs and grasses. The BGU model was developed in Israel’s Negev Desert, but it might also prove useful in more temperate environments. Chicago’s green roofs, for example, also experience water scarcity.
“The city leads the country in developing green roofs, which are really good for mitigating storm water,” said M. Cristina Negri, an agronomist and environmental engineer at Argonne. Plants on green roofs need to adapt to suboptimal conditions because they live in thin soils, which are unable to retain much water during dry spells.
One of the original water research initiative projects uses a novel technique to make membranes that will not only filter harmful biological species from water, but also chemically cleanse it of toxins. Researchers grow a polymer film made of two materials. By manipulating the tendency of molecules to organize themselves into stable structures, the scientists get the film to “build itself” along the lines that they desire. The result is a web of specifically sized cylinders made of one component embedded in a matrix of another…
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