Grant supports using AI to recover energy, nutrients, and freshwater from municipal wastewater

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced it has awarded $27.5 million for 16 water infrastructure projects. The goal of all these projects is to reduce energy use and carbon emissions in our aging water infrastructure, particularly in wastewater treatment.

For one of the projects, which was awarded $2 million over three years, DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, along with lead organizations University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and other partners, will be developing an artificial intelligence-assisted system for recovery of energy, nutrients, and freshwater from municipal wastewater.

Junhong Chen
Prof. Junhong Chen

“This project is an important step forward in realizing Argonne’s strategic plan to enhance our leadership in water-related science through pioneering research, discoveries and innovations using artificial intelligence,” said Junhong Chen, the Crown Family Professor of Molecular Engineering at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago.

The project’s approach will combine artificial intelligence and machine learning for online learning of system dynamics, mathematical modeling for optimizing energy and nutrient recovery, and life-cycle analysis and modeling with respect to both the science and economics to guide system design. It will also involve the development of novel materials for efficient solar steam generation and wireless sensors for real-time water quality monitoring.

The resulting resource recovery system would benefit the water supply in underserved communities on Chicago’s South Side as well as the Great Lakes region in general, including Milwaukee and Detroit.

The ultimate goal of the project is to transform the existing U.S. treatment system for municipal wastewater into an intelligent water resource recovery system that will dramatically reduce energy consumption and become energy positive at a national scale.

The other partners include the Great Lakes Water Authority, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, NanoAffix and two regional water innovation hubs—Current and the Water Council. These partners, together with UChicago and Northwestern, will be contributing another $560,000 to the project.

“Water is an indispensable resource of our society, as it is required for sustaining life and economic prosperity,” said Chen, lead water strategist at Argonne. ​“Our future economy and national security greatly depend on the availability of clean water. However, there is a limited supply of renewable freshwater, with no substitute.”

The intelligent system concept for municipal wastewater recovery should also be applicable to other wastewaters, including industrial and agricultural.

The DOE support for this research comes from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Advanced Manufacturing Office. In addition to Chen, the project team members include Seth Darling (Argonne), Jennifer Dunn (joint appointment Northwestern and Argonne), George Wells (Northwestern) and Yuxin Chen (UChicago).

—Article was originally published on the Argonne National Laboratory website.