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Northwestern’s Center for Water Research Supports New Collaborations with the University of Chicago, Ben-Gurion University in Israel

Seven proposals for innovative water research will collectively receive more than $700,000 in new funding from the three institutions

Professors Aaron Packman, Neelesh Patankar, Sera Young, Ken Park, and George Wells visit Israel in 2017.Professors Aaron Packman, Neelesh Patankar, Sera Young, Ken Park, and George Wells visit Israel in 2017.

Food deserts in Chicago and remote areas in India without electricity or running water could both benefit from new research supported by the Northwestern University-based Center for Water Research.

Seven collaborative projects involving Northwestern, Ben-Gurion University, and the University of Chicago were selected to receive more than $700,000 collectively over two years from the three institutions. Projects focus on the development of water treatment technology, water sensing, and interface control for water supply and purification.

One project, “Improving Water Use Efficiency with Multifunctional Surfaces,” involves developing methods to harvest water from the atmosphere through rainwater, fog, and dew while simultaneously suppressing evaporation from the soil.

This work was launched in 2017 through seed funding from the Water Center and has potential applications in greenhouse settings in inner-city Chicago as well as in developing areas of India.

Neelesh Patankar, Northwestern Engineering professor and associate chair of mechanical engineering and (by courtesy) professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics, and Kyoo-Chul (Kenneth) Park, Northwestern Engineering assistant professor of mechanical engineering, visited Israel to meet with peers from the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University.

“We thought that it would be a really good combination between our computer simulation technology, which is the expertise of Professor Patankar, as well as experimental results from my laboratory, and Ben-Gurion University’s field testing and many decades of experience,” Park said.

Now, through additional funding from the Water Center, the collaboration will include experts from the University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering, who specialize in polymer science.

“Northwestern and the University of Chicago have complementary capabilities for water research,” said Aaron Packman, director of the Center for Water Research. “We work a lot together in materials, chemistry, and other areas, but it’s not really been put together in water. We hope this particular combination will work well to kick start a lot of activity.”

“The Water Center played a role in introducing us to people working on this research and these problems, so we could zone in and find collaborators,” Patankar said.

The other funded projects, chosen from 19 submitted proposals, include:

  • Energy Harvesting from Desalination Brine Discharge Using Nanoconfined Metal Films (Ben-Gurion University, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago)
  • New Materials Concepts for High Flux Nanofiltration Membranes (Ben-Gurion University, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago)
  • Low-Cost Diagnostics for Pathogens, Antibiotics, and Antibiotic Resistance in Water Environments (Ben-Gurion University and Northwestern University)
  • Vesicle-based Tracers to Detect and Report Biogeochemical Processes in Aquatic Systems (Ben-Gurion University and Northwestern University)
  • Elucidating the Low-fouling Mechanism of Polyzwitterion Toward Ultralow Fouling Membranes for Water Treatment (Ben-Gurion University and the University of Chicago)
  • Relating Membrane-Fixed Charge and Selective Ion Transport for Water Purification (Ben-Gurion University, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago)

“We really think we’re opening new areas of research, so we expect to see some exciting new discoveries and then take those discoveries and apply them to water,” said Packman, professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The Center for Water Research began in March 2016 and hosts an annual symposium on Water in Israel and the Middle East. Ben-Gurion University and Northwestern partner for faculty and student exchanges, which includes trips for faculty to meet with peers in Israel to develop research ideas, as well as visits for students through classes and the Global Engineering Trek program, developed by McCormick Global Initiatives and the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN).

“This is part of a careful, planned development for collaboration with Israel in water research, where they’re world-leading in a number of areas, including desalination, water reuse, and commercialization of university research products,” Packman added.