Better Water Purification Methods

The continued shortage of reliable access to clean water in many parts of the world is one of the biggest challenges facing humankind,” Freeman said. “According to WaterAid, approximately 850 million people worldwide live without access to clean water, and 60 percent of the world’s population lives in water-stressed areas. Closer to home, harnessing valuable resources, such as minerals and water, from the enormous volumes of wastewater associated with oil and gas production in Texas represents a potentially immense untapped opportunity.”

M-WET will focus on synthesis of new polymer-based membrane materials, characterization of their properties and discovering the fundamental scientific principles to eventually enable predictive design of such materials via computer simulation.

Conventional treatment technologies have provided water for municipal, industrial and agricultural needs for centuries. However, Katz said, existing water infrastructure and technologies are inadequate for sustainably meeting the increased population growth, industrialization and urbanization expected in the future.

“We must no longer think of water treatment as an endpoint,” she said. “Rather, the water we treat and the wastewater we generate must be seen as resources, and the pathway from source — be it freshwater, saltwater or wastewater — to product must be viewed in terms of nutrient recovery, mineral recovery and water recovery. Development of technologies to fulfill this vision requires fundamental understanding of the chemistry of water as well as the materials applied to recover these resources.”

M-WET is a cross-disciplinary research center involving engineers from across the Cockrell School: Tom Truskett, Venkat Ganesan and Nate Lynd from the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering; Desmond Lawler from the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering; Michael Webber from the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering; and Mukul Sharma from the Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering.

Conventional water treatment systems can produce high-quality water, but treatment of complex waters associated with energy production, water reuse and industrial applications requires more advanced technologies. Synthetic polymer membranes can provide this level of advanced treatment, but basic science challenges frustrate widespread deployment of polymer membranes for water purification in applications important for energy. For example, current membranes lack selectivity for some contaminants, and membrane performance is always reduced by fouling, or clogging, of the membrane surface or pores.

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