Making water better, molecule by molecule

Israel’s BGU will collaborate with UChicago to solve the world’s water problems using nanotechnology

University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer (L) and Ben Gurion University President Rivka Carmi sign the MOU on water research at a March 8 signing ceremony in Chicago (Photo credit: Courtesy BGU)
University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer (L) and Ben Gurion University President Rivka Carmi sign the MOU on water research at a March 8 signing ceremony in Chicago (Photo credit: Courtesy BGU)

Israel’s got one of the most advanced water desalination programs in the world and dozens of successful water conservation and reclamation projects. Now, cutting-edge Israeli research on water technology will make its way to American academia, as the University of Chicago and Ben-Gurion University have signed a partnership agreement to create new water production and purification technologies for deployment in regions of the globe where freshwater resources are scarce — based on nanotechnology.

The plan includes the establishment of a research center based in both Chicago and Beersheba where “the molecular aspects of water science and technology will result in a powerful new approach for addressing the various and pervasive challenges to the global water supply,” said University of Chicago president Robert J. Zimmer at a March 8 signing ceremony in Chicago with BGU president Rivka Carmi.

Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating molecules to achieve positive results, and is responsible for major advancements in areas such as medicine and energy. As applied to water, nanotech could speed up and lower the cost of desalination, more effectively recycle wastewater, save water in manufacturing, utilize water better for energy production, and others. Ben-Gurion, located on the cusp of the Negev desert, is one of Israel’s most experienced water technology institutions; the school has hundreds of patents for water technologies.

“BGU has been at the forefront of advanced basic and applied water-related research for more than four decades and has developed a number of innovative technologies in the field,” Carmi said. “The collaboration with University of Chicago will result in the development of new technologies for the benefit of people all over the world.”

Leading the Chicago side of the collaboration will be Matthew Tirrell, the Pritzker Director of UChicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering. Tirrell’s team will include scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, which UChicago manages for the US Department of Energy. Leading the Israeli side will be Moshe Gottlieb, BGU’s Frankel Professor of Chemical Engineering.

“Water is the most fundamental molecule for sustaining all forms of life, but it is in dramatically short supply in many parts of the world,” Tirrell said. “Water in all parts of the world faces numerous threats, which in turn endanger human and economic health.” The dangers include increased demand driven by energy production, agricultural runoff, depletion and contamination of aquifers by salt water and by industrial, organic and biological toxins.

“Such large-scale problems must be met by solutions developed from a comprehensive and integrated science and technology base of the type we will establish between the University of Chicago and Ben-Gurion University,” Tirrell said.

“In this collaboration we intend to take advantage of the great strides achieved over the last decade in nanotechnology, materials science, biology, and chemistry at both institutions, and the world-class facilities available at Argonne National Laboratory,” said Gottlieb. “These new tools and insights afford a molecular-level approach to tackle an age-old human plight.”

UChicago and BGU researchers will meet next month in Beersheba to begin discussing interdisciplinary collaborative water-related research projects of technical and societal significance. Joint activities may include the exchange of visiting faculty members, researchers and students; the development of funding proposals for collaborative work; and the creation of innovative commercial technologies and new business ventures, BGU said.

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