Improving water purification

Article by Amanda Jasi

A NEW, multi-university research centre, headquartered at the US' University of Texas at Austin (UT), has been launched. Researchers at the Center for Materials for Water and Energy Systems, or M-WET, are aiming to discover novel methods to increase water supplies through improved water purification methods.

Demand for water is increasing, while supplies are decreasing. To help address this issue, M-WET was established via a four-year US$10.75m grant from the US Department of Energy (DOE), as part of its Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) programme. The DOE has 42 such centres across the country aiming to accelerate understanding and discovery in various energy-related fields.  

M-WET brings together researchers from UT; the University of California, Santa Barbara; and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The centre seeks to fill gaps in basic scientific knowledge that might inform the development of next-generation polymer-based membrane technologies for water purification.

Conventional water treatments can produce high-quality water, and have provided water for municipal, industrial and agricultural use for centuries. However, they are insufficient for treating complex waters associated with energy production, water reuse, and industrial applications. In these cases, more advanced technologies are required. 

Synthetic polymer membranes look promising, but there are issues currently preventing widespread deployment for water purification in energy applications – including lack of selectivity and reduced performance due to eventual fouling, or clogging, of the membrane surface or pores.

M-WET researchers will look to synthesise new, polymer-based membrane materials. They will also characterise the membrane properties with the expectation of discovering fundamental scientific principles, which could, in turn, lead to predictive design of such materials using computer simulation.

Lynn Katz, an associate director of M-WET, said that existing water infrastructure and technologies are inadequate, and will not sustainably meet future population growth, industrialisation, and urbanisation. Treated water and wastewater must therefore be seen as possible resources.

Benny Freeman, director of M-WET, said: “The continued shortage of reliable access to clean water in many parts of the world is one of the biggest challenges facing humankind. According to WaterAid, approximately 850m people worldwide live without access to clean water, and 60% of the world’s population lives in water-stressed areas.” He added that the ability to harness resources, such as minerals and water, from wastewater associated with oil and gas production in Texas “represents a potentially immense untapped opportunity”.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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