Carnegie Mellon University
October 19, 2019

Carnegie Mellon's Institute for Green Science Part of New $100M DOE Water Desalination Innovation Hub

By Ben Panko

Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for Green Science (IGS) is a core academic partner in a newly announced $100 million innovation hub on water desalination research and innovation established by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The Energy-Water Desalination Hub will be led by the National Alliance for Water Innovation (NAWI), a consortium of leading researchers in water treatment from national laboratories, industry and universities. The IGS and CMU became founding partners of NAWI in 2017.

“DOE recognizes the importance of transforming how we treat and purify water, especially in a water-constrained future,” stated Ryan Sullivan, associate professor of chemistry and mechanical engineering and associate director of the IGS. “NAWI was selected as the first major DOE research hub to develop and deploy novel water desalination technologies. Significantly reducing the energy and materials costs of water treatment is a key priority of this large innovation hub.”

The DOE hub will focus on researching and developing efficient and affordable technology for desalinating and treating water from "non-traditional" sources, including produced water from the oil & gas industry and other high saltwater sources to alleviate water scarcity worldwide. The overall goal is to create new, safe sources of water for use in many applications, including agriculture and municipal drinking water supplies in the southwestern United States.

Research proposals from multiple chemistry faculty in the IGS were part of NAWI's winning bid to lead the innovation hub. Over the next year, NAWI will select proposals to fund from among its partners.

The groundbreaking work of Teresa Heinz Professor in Green Chemistry Terrence Collins on developing NewTAML oxidation catalysts formed the basis of the IGS’s proposals. NewTAML molecules, inspired by natural oxidation enzymes within the human body, have been shown to quickly and effectively break down persistent and harmful synthetic chemicals.

"Many synthetic chemicals — in pharmaceuticals, birth control, pesticides, flame retardants — pass right through wastewater systems," explained Ryan Sullivan. A significant number of these chemicals are micropollutants, meaning they can ellicit adverse effects at low concentrations in water. “This is especially of concern with water produced from oil and gas extraction being applied to agricultural crops. It is critical to remove these micropollutants, often added as part of fracking or extraction processes, so they do not accumulate up the food chain and become consumed by people.”

"Endocrine hormones in your body work in parts per trillion to low parts per billion concentrations," said Collins, who also serves as director of the IGS. "They control how much of life develops and what we become. The current host of everyday, everywhere chemicals that we have discovered are endocrine disruptors reads like a science fiction horror story — but it is reality."

With NAWI, Collins has proposed focusing on applying his NewTAML oxidation techniques to brackish water.

As the vital importance of green science has become apparent, the IGS has expanded to collaborate with other young faculty in the Mellon College of Science's Department of Chemistry. Their proposals for the NAWI bid set out to apply the NewTAML molecules in innovative ways.

For example, Sullivan, who is the first scientist in the United States to use aerosol optical tweezing to isolate and monitor aerosol droplets, has suggested harnessing that technology to potentially speed up the NewTAML oxidation of polluted water and air.

Associate Professor of Chemistry Kevin Noonan has been working to attach NewTAML to polymer scaffolds that could be made into cheap, but durable, membranes that combine oxidation with water filtration and prevent fouling of the membrane that limits its lifetime and drives up material costs.

Other CMU faculty that are contributing to IGS's work include Assistant Professors of Chemistry Stefanie Sydlik and Alex Guo, Professor of Chemistry Hyung Kim, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Rosayln Abbott and Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Zachery Ulissi.

"The NewTAML technology is really at this critical point where it's ready to get out of the lab where we are certain from the vast data base Dr. Collins and his collaborators have assembled there will be major benefits for water purity and safety in the real world," Sullivan said. "IGS's partnership in this DOE innovation hub and collaboration with its many academic and industry partners will help make that happen."