A new way to help reuse and recycle wastewater as the world faces clean water shortages

As an undergraduate, Whitney Fowler saw firsthand how communities are affected by access to clean water when she took a service trip to Uganda. She decided she would use her degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering to address the issue head on—and the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering was just the place to begin.

Fowler is now graduating with her PhD and a number of publications behind her. She also has helped develop a new system that can reclaim phosphate from water—an important step forward in reusing and recycling this resource used in growing food.

Reclaiming phosphate from water is no small challenge. Within the next 100 years, the world will face a shortage of phosphate, a critical ingredient in fertilizer. Much of this non-renewable resource ends up in waterways through agricultural runoff, but phosphate is often found in only trace amounts, and it’s surrounded by many other ions and molecules in water as well, making the capture of only phosphate difficult.

Working in the lab of Matthew Tirrell, dean of PME, Fowler and her colleagues knew that the human body contains proteins that can bind to and release phosphate, so they hypothesized that it must be possible to engineer a technology that utilizes a similar approach. They used a material system called peptide amphiphile micelles and incorporated specific peptides that seek out and bind to phosphate. When the material is placed in water, the phosphate becomes enmeshed in its network. When researchers remove the material from a solution, they can release and collect the phosphate by changing the pH level, which allows the material  to be reused.

“PME is very collaborative and interdisciplinary, and I’ve really benefited from being in that kind of environment,” she said. “I had amazing opportunities for research, professional networking, teaching, and outreach.”

Fowler teamed up with the lab of Juan de Pablo, Liew Family Professor of Molecular Engineering, where lab members ran computer simulations to better understand the mechanism at play within the material. “My work would not have been as significant if we didn’t collaborate with Juan’s group,” she said. “It’s really valuable to pair experiments with computational insight.”

She plans to continue to iterate and redesign the system platform as a sensor. “We need new systems to test water quality in rural areas,” she said. “My research has focused on this protein-inspired targeted binding, but this kind of system has a sensing mechanism, too. That could allow us to use it to detect pharmaceuticals and pesticides to help ensure safe water is safe to drink.”

This month, Fowler begins a new role as a faculty member at Harvey Mudd College, where she is excited to continue her research and teach the next generation of engineers. 

“I plan to be a professor and a mentor, and to direct my research toward real-world applications,” she said. “Pritzker Molecular Engineering has great collaborative researchers who were working on the water crisis, and it was my number one choice.”