By Lisa Y. Garibay
After decades of dedicating his life’s work towards research that would help protect the environment, Department of Chemistry Chair Jorge Gardea-Torresdey, Ph.D., has achieved a dream come true.
The professor is part of a team that has just been awarded a prestigious and fiercely competitive Engineering Research Center (ERC) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The five-year, renewable $18.5 million grant will give the four-institution collaboration resources to expand their scientific advances addressing the world’s urgent demand for clean water through low-cost, energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly methods.
“I became a chemical engineer and environmental chemist because I wanted to do research related to the protection of the environment,” Gardea-Torresdey said. “Having been awarded this grant to protect the environment by producing drinking water using nanotechnology makes me incredibly honored and happy.”
The results from this grant have the potential to benefit 43 million Americans who rely on private wells for water with little or no treatment and the 780 million people worldwide who have no access to clean water.
This ERC grant is the first for UTEP and only the third awarded in Texas in nearly 30 years. The funding goes towards the establishment of a Houston-based Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment Systems Center (NEWT). The first national center to develop affordable, mobile, modular, high-performance water-treatment systems that are enabled by nanotechnology, NEWT will work with more than 30 industry and government partners to speed the transition of technology to the marketplace.
As UTEP project leader for NEWT, Gardea-Torresdey will be directing his local team alongside other leading experts in nanotechnology and advanced water treatment from Rice University, Arizona State University (ASU) and Yale University. Rounding out the UTEP group are Assistant Professor of Social Work Eva Moya, Ph.D.; Associate Professor of Chemistry Juan Noveron, Ph.D.; Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dino Villagran, Ph.D.; and Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering Shane Walker, Ph.D.
NEWT’s technology will be able to convert water from any source, including pond water, seawater and flood water, for residential or industrial use. Its systems use fewer chemicals, produce little to no waste, create fewer to no harmful disinfection byproducts and require less energy to operate.
Treatment systems will use nanomaterials – tiny molecules engineered to be much smaller and more effective than naturally occurring counterparts – to make off-grid, small-scale water treatment economical. The result will be compact, customizable mobile water-treatment systems that can fit on the back of a tractor-trailer. These units can be assembled according to the pollutants they need to remove from water, whether arsenic, copper, lead or any other EPA pollutants.
Noveron became involved with NEWT during the ERC application process in 2014. His expertise in supramolecular materials, the basics of nanotechnology, led him to contribute a proposal focused on the design of tiny gel-encapsulated particles imprinted with receptors capable of binding with and removing arsenate from water. It’s heady stuff, but the results of millions of gallons of water being suddenly made clean and drinkable are easy to grasp.
“This project will essentially miniaturize a large football field-size water-treatment plant into a refrigerator-size device that is mobile and able to provide clean water to millions of villages and small communities around the world,” Noveron explained.
Industrial sites where there is no electrical grid to operate current energy-intensive purification systems may benefit, including local colonias – neighborhoods in the Texas-Mexico border region without potable (drinkable) water infrastructures. Other potential applications include desalinating water for coastal disaster relief and preparing well water for oil and gas production with less environmental impact.
Test-bed facilities will be operated out of the Houston headquarters as well as at UTEP and ASU.
Benefits from the ERC grant trickle all the way down the pipeline to students of all ages. NEWT will result in bountiful training and mentoring opportunities for university-level learners at UTEP and the other partner institutions.
“NEWT will open up a new array of opportunities for UTEP students from many disciplines in science and engineering and from many levels, pre-college to doctoral, because the program is comprehensive in its research, entrepreneurial, and educational ambitions,” Noveron said.
Villagran added, “Since this is a multicenter grant in collaboration with Rice, Yale and Arizona State, (UTEP) students working with us will have the opportunity to collaborate with students and faculty at other institutions and foster close ties with other research groups.
“Of course, also having the opportunity to perform cutting-edge research in water remediation will be the most important benefit,” said the physical inorganic chemist, who is leading a thrust within the project to develop engineered nanomaterials with high absorption, magnetic and photocatalytic properties to remove target water pollutants.
Outreach activities will recruit and retain K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teachers and their students, many who are from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields.
As a social worker who has been in the trenches of service for the past 30 years, Moya is excited for this project to address her professional focuses on health and social justice in the U.S.-Mexico border region; namely, by improving access to water and technology using a community organizing model, starting with local colonias, with which she has worked before.
“I strongly believe that developing technologies for community with the active participation of the communities can be transformational to both the scientists and the community members. I see a great opportunity to link the physical and social environment in the development and implementation of NEWT technologies for underserved populations. The opportunity to work with community health workers is another wonderful example of how we can build scientists and community leaders capacity to work with each other to advance the common good in the area of new technologies,” Moya said.
After the exhaustive application and assessment process required to obtain the grant, UTEP’s award-winning team is eager to get started and have its work go out into the world.
“It’s a beautiful project,” Gardea-Torresdey said.
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