The global challenge: access to clean, fresh water

Water is one of the world’s most abundant resources, yet in many regions clean water is in critically short supply—endangering the economy, public health, energy production, and food supply.

New ways of generating access to fresh water—and sustainably ensuring its safety and quality—are essential. According to a 2013 United Nations World Water Development Report, responsible water management is key to meeting the near 20 percent increase in global demand for fresh water by 2050. Less than 1 percent of the world’s water supply is safe for drinking, which leaves nearly 1 billion people without access to fresh drinking water.

A fresh approach

The Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering’s (PME) Collaborative Water Research Initiative is investigating all aspects of water use, including novel purification methods, efficient use in agriculture, and optimal power usage in water treatment and distribution. Pritzker Molecular Engineering is also developing innovative partnerships locally and globally—with universities, corporations, and government agencies—all with one goal: to transform new ideas into new tools that directly address problems of global importance. PME's novel approach brings together world-class scientists and engineers to advance the fundamental scientific understanding about water and water usage, as well as to accelerate the pace of new technology development for unmet market needs.

From clean water and energy storage to disease detection and treatment and next-generation technologies, PME aims to accelerate the pace of scientific progress and make its solutions rapidly available.

Global research partnerships

In April 2013, a group of 10 research scientists and supporting staff from the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, and Northwestern University joined another 20 research scientists from Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev in Beer-Sheva, Israel, for a two-day workshop to develop research ideas and explore collaborations around the theme of "Science and Technology for Water and Its Utilization." The ideas generated and the collaboration network initiated at this workshop serve as the basis for collaborative water research projects among the institutions.

The following June, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer, Ben-Gurion University President Rivka Carmi, and leading scientists in water research formally announced a major collaboration between the University of Chicago and Ben-Gurion University. These joint projects will explore innovative solutions at the water-energy nexus, developing more efficient ways of using water to produce energy and using energy to treat and deliver clean water.

Dedicated Resources

The Water Research Initiative will be led by PME fellow Steven Sibener, the Carl William Eisendrath Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry and the James Franck Institute. The team will also include scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, which the university manages for the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, which has also recently signed an affiliation agreement with the school.

UChicago, Ben-Gurion, and Argonne have jointly committed more than $1 million over the next two years to support these inaugural projects, with the first set of projects scheduled to begin this fall. Proposals from nine cross-insitutional research teams are currently being evaluated for funding.