The Ritz Herald
This is an aerial view of a modern industrial sewage treatment plant. © Daniel Jedzura

Argonne Researchers Aim to Solve Problems for the World’s Freshwater Supply

Published on March 23, 2021

Argonne National Laboratory is partnering with industry, government, academia, and others to solve problems with the nation’s water system, with wide-ranging benefits for the U.S. economy.

Water’s value to society goes far beyond quenching thirst. An indispensable resource, it is required not only to sustain life, but also for economic prosperity. Water, for example, is needed to generate energy and to manufacture nearly everything, from food to clothes, cars, and electronics. Our future economy and national security highly depend on the availability of clean water.

However, there is a limited supply of renewable freshwater when and where it is needed. Population and economic growth, climate change, and urbanization further exacerbate the growing water stress globally.

Water challenges need to be solved in conjunction with climate change, energy, food, and health. So, everyone can contribute to the convergent water solutions.” — Junhong Chen, Argonne lead water strategist, senior scientist.

That is why the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory is working with partners across the country to address water challenges. On World Water Day, March 22, Argonne recommits to this effort and encourages companies, organizations, and even individuals to do the same. By realizing the water is a precious resource for all, everyone can contribute to the solutions.

One example is Argonne’s innovative Oleo Sponge, developed in 2017. It consists of a polyurethane foam specially treated with oil-adsorbing molecules through an Argonne-pioneered process called sequential infiltration synthesis. The Oleo Sponge can remove spilled oil selectively from a body of water, not only from the surface, but also below the surface, in the water column. It also can be reused again and again by wringing out the oil.

Junhong Chen is the lead water strategist and a senior scientist in Argonne’s Physical Sciences and Engineering directorate. Working with leaders at Argonne and elsewhere to create new partnerships with industry, DOE, other federal sponsors, foundations, academia, and other stakeholders, he is growing Argonne’s water research program to help reduce water stress through science and innovation. That research can help in many ways.

For example, Argonne is proposing Great Lakes research to benefit the water supply in communities on Chicago’s South Side. In addition, water quality research with different partners such as the Discovery Partner Institute could contribute to global health, and wastewater-based epidemiology could help monitor community-level infection of diseases, such as COVID-19.

Water challenges need to be solved in conjunction with climate change, energy, food, and health. Many partners can contribute to convergent water solutions. And Argonne is uniquely positioned to leverage and continue to build partnerships to address these challenges, said Chen, who is also a Crown Family Professor at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago.

Four main considerations are important to head off a water crisis, said Chen. First, more research is needed to address water challenges. Second, computing innovations such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) should be leveraged to advance water research. Third, a collaboration between the public and private sectors is needed. Finally, we need to expand the public’s understanding that water is connected to climate change, energy, food, and health.

We urgently need scientific and engineering solutions to achieve more efficient management of our precious water resources,” Chen said. ​Research and innovation around water conservation, recycling, reclamation, and reuse are critical to meeting national needs.”

This is why the White House initiated a DOE-led U.S. Water Security Grand Challenge. Its goal is to advance transformational technology and innovation to meet the global need for safe, secure, and affordable water.

At present, there is an exciting, timely opportunity to transform the water and wastewater industry by integrating AI and ML into next-generation water technologies, products, services, and utility operations. These types of advances have the potential to produce significant economic, energy, and environmental benefits, while tackling the U.S. Water Security Grand Challenge. Both AI/ML and data science cut across the entire water system integration process and can serve as a nexus to connect all the pieces.

As such, Argonne recently launched a 10-year strategy to address the Water Security Grand Challenge in collaboration with its partners, called Water Science and Engineering empowered by Artificial Intelligence (Water + AI). The strategy covers the entire innovation spectrum from fundamental research to enabling technologies and integrated systems.

To meet this vision, the collaboration intends to develop three use-inspired intelligent systems that will drive much-needed societal impacts. The three systems are:

  1. Intelligent fit-for-purpose water systems that provide water of the required quality and quantity to meet demand as it is needed;
  2. Intelligent water-enabled energy systems that make more intelligent use of the cooling and wastewater in power plants, the water involved in hydropower projects, and the high-pressure water mixtures in fracking; and
  3. Intelligent management systems for water resources that would manage groundwater, surface water, wastewater, and water in polar regions and the atmosphere.

Performance metrics for these systems will drive research for enabling technologies and fundamental knowledge around six areas: materials, selective separation, sensors and controls, modeling and AI/ML, manufacturing, and sustainability.

Understanding — and ultimately controlling — the interfaces between water and materials will enable the design of advanced membranes, sorbents, sensors, and catalysts to efficiently increase supplies of fit-for-purpose water. This challenge represents the mission of the Advanced Materials for Energy-Water Systems Center, an Energy Frontier Research Center, headquartered at Argonne,” said Seth B. Darling, senior scientist and director of Argonne’s Center for Molecular Engineering.

Argonne offers a wide range of expertise under one roof, including materials science, chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, manufacturing, AI/ML, high-performance computing, sustainability analysis, and quantum science and engineering. This extraordinarily wide-ranging expertise can be harnessed to address the most complex societal challenges related to water. Also, Argonne has world-class research facilities, such as the Advanced Photon SourceCenter for Nanoscale Materials and the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, all DOE Office of Science User Facilities; as well as the Materials Engineering Research Facility.

Our global water challenge is not isolated, and convergent solutions are needed because, as Chen noted, they can also address social dimensions, such as environmental justice, policy, economics, and human-technology interactions.

Climate change leads to extreme weather patterns and droughts in some places and heavy rainfall in other places,” said Chen. ​Heavy rainfall leads to flooding and water quality issues, challenging our aging water infrastructure across the nation.”

In addition to research taking place at Argonne and other institutions globally, individuals are called to action to help conserve water and mitigate other water challenges, such as minimizing contaminants in the environment, including the use and disposal of plastics, Chen said.

Everyone can help make an impact regarding our food, health, manufacturing, and other aspects of society,” said Chen. ​And Argonne is committed to leading with strategies to help solve larger problems that society faces, as well as challenges our local communities face.”

To learn more about Argonne’s water research program, please subscribe to Argonne’s Water + AI newsletter.

Funding for the Argonne-led Advanced Materials for Energy-Water Systems Center, an Energy Frontier Research Center, was from the DOE Office of Science Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES). The Oleo Sponge research was funded by BES, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Environmental Reporter