Chicago Enlists Desert Water Experts To Prevent “Water Desert”

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You’ve heard about urban food deserts, and pretty soon you’re going to start hearing about urban water deserts, too. We’re talking about cities where water in general is abundant but clean drinking water is becoming more difficult and expensive to provide on a municipal level. Well, it looks like Chicago is determined not to become a water desert. Through the University of Chicago, the city has embarked on an ambitious partnership with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to develop new technologies for water recycling, conservation, and purification. Called the Water Research Initiative, the idea is to get more bang for the buck, with the aim of bringing down the cost of providing potable and drinkable water by 2020, on a global scale.

Negev desert
Negev Desert by israeltourism.

A Looming Water Crisis

The Water Research Initiative was actually formed last year but we’re taking note of it now because (a) it involves a raft of kickass new technologies and (b) in advance of World Water Day, the International Energy Agency has just released a new report on the water-energy nexus. According to IEA, energy generation now accounts for a whopping 15 percent of global water consumption, a figure that is predicted to rise along with growing energy demand. The obvious result is an increased strain on potable water resources, which here in the US are already beset by a seemingly endless string of fossil fuel related disasters, shale gas exploitation, and the historic drought in California. World Water Day is March 22, by the way.

The Chicago Water Research Initiative

Chicago drew on some heavy hitters for the new partnership. Along with the two universities, it also recruits water resource experts from near Argonne National Laboratory (located in Lemont, Illinois), and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Here’s U Chicago president Robert J. Zimmer explaining why it makes sense for water-rich Chicago to share a knowledge base with desert water experts:

Our purification challenges in the Great Lakes region right now are different from some of the scarcity issues some of our colleagues at Ben-Gurion are addressing, but our combined experience will be a tremendous asset in turning early-stage technologies into innovative solutions that may have applications far beyond local issues.

Ben-Gurion President Rivka Carmi also points out that clean water is a strategic issue in the Middle East and globally. That also applies in some respects to the US internally. You can see that in the long history of water rights issues in the western states, which gain new intensity with each drought cycle. In a more modern twist, the aforementioned fossil fuel disasters are also creating inter-community and cross-border issues. The recent coal-washing chemical spill in West Virginia illustrates just how tangled that water-energy nexus can get, as individual wells and local water supplies are contaminated by fossil fuel operations, leading large regions to depend on a single, vulnerable water supply source.

New Technologies for Clean Water

The first area of focus for the new partnership will involve new materials tailored to remove contaminants and/or desalinate water using ultra low-cost processes. That basically means “tunable” membranes with molecular-level engineering that removes contaminants while also keeping itself from being coated with contaminants. The self-cleaning membrane angle is critical for low cost water purification, because it has a direct impact on energy consumption and other operational costs. Also included in that first round will be bioengineering a new wave of drought resistant plants, developing new polymers that enable agricultural soils to retain more water, and developing seed coatings that enable more water retention.

Big Bucks For The Water Research Initiative

The two universities and Argonne Lab have seeded the partnership with more than $1 million to be spread out over the next two years, and that’s just for starters. U Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering plans to commit “tens of millions of dollars” to molecular level water research in the coming years. It will hire up to six new faculty members to work alongside Ben-Gurion faculty at its Hyde Park campus. As for Ben-Gurion, it was founded by the Israeli government back in 1969 to lead development efforts in the Negev Desert. Through the university’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research, one result is that currently 60 percent of the country’s freshwater needs are met by desalination. Argonne Lab is no slouch either. Among its research projects are wastewater discharges into Lake Michigan, the effects of Glen Canyon Dam operations on the Colorado River, and carbon tetrachloride contamination in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. The Woods Hole lab is perhaps best know for pure research, but it has also been instrumental in boosting public awareness of water contamination issues.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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