10 Aug 2015
NEWT Center will use nanotechnology to transform economics of water treatment A Rice University-led consortium of industry, university and government partners has been chosen to establish one of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) prestigious Engineering Research Centers in Houston to develop compact, mobile, off-grid water-treatment systems that can provide clean water to millions of people who lack it and make U.S. energy production more sustainable and cost-effective.
Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment Systems, or NEWT, is Houston’s first NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) and only the third in Texas in nearly 30 years. It is funded by a five-year, $18.5 million NSF grant that can be renewed for a potential term of 10 years. NEWT brings together experts from Rice, Arizona State University, Yale University and the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to work with more than 30 partners: including Shell, Baker Hughes, UNESCO, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NASA.
ERCs are interdisciplinary, multi-institutional centers that join academia, industry and government in partnership to produce both transformational technology and innovative-minded engineering graduates who are primed to lead the global economy. ERCs often become self-sustaining and typically leverage more than $40 million in federal and industry research funding during their first decade.
“The importance of clean water to global health and economic development simply cannot be overstated,” said NEWT Director Pedro Alvarez, the grant’s principal investigator. “We envision using technology and advanced materials to provide clean water to millions of people who lack it and to enable energy production in the United States to be more cost-effective and more sustainable in regard to its water footprint.”
NEWT Center will use nanotechnology to transform water treatment: Video
Houston-area Congressman John Culberson, R-Texas, chair of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, said, “Technology is a key enabler for the energy industry, and NEWT is ideally located at Rice, in the heart of the world’s energy capital, where it can partner with industry to ensure that the United States remains a leading energy producer.”
Alvarez, Rice’s George R. Brown Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and professor of chemistry, materials science and nanoengineering, said treated water is often unavailable in rural areas and low-resource communities that cannot afford large treatment plants or the miles of underground pipes to deliver water. Moreover, large-scale treatment and distribution uses a great deal of energy. “About 25 percent of the energy bill for a typical city is associated with the cost of moving water,” he said.
NEWT Deputy Director Paul Westerhoff said the new modular water-treatment systems, which will be small enough to fit in the back of a tractor-trailer, will use nanoengineered catalysts, membranes and light-activated materials to change the economics of water treatment.
“NEWT’s vision goes well beyond today’s technology,” said Westerhoff, vice provost of academic research at ASU and co-principal investigator on the NSF grant. “We’ve set a path for transformative new technology that will move water treatment from a predominantly chemical treatment process to more efficient catalytic and physical processes that exploit solar energy and generate less waste.”
Co-principal investigator and NEWT Associate Director for Research Qilin Li, the leader of NEWT’s advanced treatment test beds at Rice, said the system’s technology will be useful in places where water and power infrastructure does not exist.
“The NEWT drinking water system will be able to produce drinking water from any source, including pond water, seawater and floodwater, using solar energy and even under cloudy conditions,” said Li, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice. “The modular treatment units will be easy to configure and reconfigure to meet desired water-quality levels. The system will include components that target suspended solids, microbes, dissolved contaminants and salts, and it will have the ability to treat a variety of industrial wastewater according to the industry’s need for discharge or reuse.”
NEWT will focus on applications for humanitarian emergency response, rural water systems and wastewater treatment and reuse at remote sites, including both onshore and offshore drilling platforms for oil and gas exploration.
Yale’s Menachem “Meny” Elimelech, co-principal investigator and lead researcher for membrane processes, said NEWT’s innovative enabling technologies are founded on rigorous basic research into nanomaterials, membrane dynamics, photonics, scaling, paramagnetism and more.
“Our modular water-treatment systems will use a combination of component technologies,” said Elimelech, Yale’s Roberto C. Goizueta Professor of Environmental and Chemical Engineering. “For example, we expect to use high-permeability membranes that resist fouling; engineered nanomaterials that can be used for membrane surface self-cleaning and biofilm control; capacitive deionization to eliminate scaly mineral deposits; and reusable magnetic nanoparticles that can soak up pollutants like a sponge.”
UTEP’s Jorge Gardea-Torresdey, co-principal investigator and co-leader of NEWT’s safety and sustainability effort, said the rapid development of engineered nanomaterials has brought NEWT’s transformative vision within reach.
“Treating water using fewer chemicals and less energy is crucial in this day and age,” said Gardea-Torresdey, UTEP’s Dudley Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering. “The exceptional properties of engineered nanomaterials will enable us to do this safely and effectively.”
Alvarez said another significant research thrust in nanophotonics will be headed by Rice co-principal investigator Naomi Halas, the inventor of “solar steam” technology, and co-led by ASU’s Mary Laura Lind.
“More than half of the cost associated with desalination of water comes from energy,” said Halas, Rice’s Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and professor of chemistry, bioengineering, physics and astronomy, and materials science and nanoengineering. “We are working to develop several supporting technologies for NEWT, including nanophotonics-enabled direct solar membrane distillation for low-energy desalination.”
Rice’s Michael Wong, Yale’s Jaehong Kim and UTEP’s Dino Villagran will collaborate in efforts to develop novel multifunctional materials such as superior sorbents and catalysts, and Yale’s Julie Zimmerman will co-lead cross-cutting efforts in safety and sustainability. Rice’s Roland Smith will lead a comprehensive diversity program that aims to attract more women and underrepresented minority students and faculty, and Rice’s Brad Burke will head up innovation and commercialization efforts with private partners. Rice’s Rebecca Richards-Kortum will lead an innovative educational program that incorporates some of the “experiential learning” techniques she developed for the award-winning undergraduate research programs at Rice 360º: Institute for Global Health Technologies, and Rice’s Carolyn Nichol will lead the K-12 education efforts.
Alvarez said NEWT’s goal is to attract industry funding and become self-sufficient within 10 years. Toward that end, he said NEWT was careful to select industrial partners from every part of the water market, including equipment makers and vendors, system operators, industrial service firms and others.
NEWT is one of three new ERCs announced by the NSF today in Washington. They join 16 existing centers that are still receiving federal support, including Texas’ only other active ERC, the University of Texas at Austin’s NASCENT, as well as the other active center in which Rice is a partner, Princeton University’s MIRTHE.
Alvarez credited Culberson and the Texas Railroad Commission for helping facilitate partnerships that were crucial for NEWT. He said the consortium’s bid to land the NSF grant was also made possible by seed funding from Rice’s Energy and Environment Initiative, a sweeping institutional initiative to engage Rice faculty from all disciplines in creating sustainable, transformative energy technologies.
“Rice’s Energy and Environment Initiative was instrumental in developing a competitive proposal, in facilitating a team-building effort and in facilitating contacts with industry to get the necessary buy-in for our vision,” Alvarez said.
Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment Program
It’s easier to dissolve a sugar cube in a glass of water by crushing the cube first, because the numerous tiny particles cover more surface area in the water than the cube itself. In a way, the same principle applies to the potential value of materials composed of nanoparticles.
Because nanoparticles are so small, millions of times smaller than the width of a human hair, they have “tremendous surface area,” raising the possibility of using them to design materials with more efficient solar-to-electricity and solar-to-chemical energy pathways, says Ari Chakraborty, an assistant professor of chemistry at Syracuse University.
“They are very promising materials,” he says. “You can optimize the amount of energy you produce from a nanoparticle-based solar cell.”
Ari Chakraborty is an assistant professor of chemistry at Syracuse University. Credit: Ari Chakraborty, Syracuse University >>>
Chakraborty, an expert in physical and theoretical chemistry, quantum mechanics and nanomaterials, is seeking to understand how these nanoparticles interact with light after changing their shape and size, which means, for example, they ultimately could provide enhanced photovoltaic and light-harvesting properties. Changing their shape and size is possible “without changing their chemical composition,” he says. “The same chemical compound in different sizes and shapes will interact differently with light.”
Specifically, the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded scientist is focusing on quantum dots, which are semiconductor crystals on a nanometer scale. Quantum dots are so tiny that the electrons within them exist only in states with specific energies. As such, quantum dots behave similarly to atoms, and, like atoms, can achieve higher levels of energy when light stimulates them.
Chakraborty works in theoretical and computational chemistry, meaning “we work with computers and computers only,” he says. “The goal of computational chemistry is to use fundamental laws of physics to understand how matter interacts with each other, and, in my research, with light. We want to predict chemical processes before they actually happen in the lab, which tells us which direction to pursue.”
These atoms and molecules follow natural laws of motion, “and we know what they are,” he says. “Unfortunately, they are too complicated to be solved by hand or calculator when applied to chemical systems, which is why we use a computer.”
The “electronically excited” states of the nanoparticles influence their optical properties, he says.
“We investigate these excited states by solving the Schrödinger equation for the nanoparticles,” he says, referring to a partial differential equation that describes how the quantum state of some physical system changes with time. “The Schrödinger equation provides the quantum mechanical description of all the electrons in the nanoparticle.
“However, accurate solution of the Schrödinger equation is challenging because of large number of electrons in system,” he adds. “For example, a 20 nanometer CdSe quantum dot contains over 6 million electrons. Currently, the primary focus of my research group is to develop new quantum chemical methods to address these challenges. The newly developed methods are implemented in open-source computational software, which will be distributed to the general public free of charge.”
Solar voltaics, “requires a substance that captures light, uses it, and transfers that energy into electrical energy,” he says. With solar cell materials made of nanoparticles, “you can use different shapes and sizes, and capture more energy,” he adds. “Also, you can have a large surface area for a small amount of materials, so you don’t need a lot of them.”
Nanoparticles also could be useful in converting solar energy to chemical energy, he says. “How do you store the energy when the sun is not out?” he says. “For example, leaves on a tree take energy and store it as glucose, then later use the glucose for food. One potential application is to develop artificial leaves for artificial photosynthesis. There is a huge area of ongoing research to make compounds that can store energy.”
Medical imaging presents another useful potential application, he says.
“For example, nanoparticles have been coated with binding agents that bind to cancerous cells,” he says. “Under certain chemical and physical conditions, the nanoparticles can be tuned to emit light, which allows us to take pictures of the nanoparticles. You could pinpoint the areas where there are cancerous cells in the body. The regions where the cancerous cells are located show up as bright spots in the photograph.”
Chakraborty is conducting his research under an NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. The award supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organization. NSF is funding his work with $622,123 over five years.
As part of the grant’s educational component, Chakraborty is hosting several students from a local high school–East Syracuse Mineoa High School–in his lab. He also has organized two workshops for high school teachers on how to use computational tools in their classrooms “to make chemistry more interesting and intuitive to high school students,” he says.
“The really good part about it is that the kids can really work with the molecules because they can see them on the screen and manipulate them in 3-D space,” he adds. “They can explore their structure using computers. They can measure distances, angles, and energies associated with the molecules, which is not possible to do with a physical model. They can stretch it, and see it come back to its original structure. It’s a real hands-on experience that the kids can have while learning chemistry.”
Source: By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation
Source: American Chemical Society Summary: The global industrial sector accounts for more than half of the total energy used every year. Now scientists are inventing a new artificial photosynthetic system that could one day reduce industry’s dependence on fossil fuel-derived energy by powering part of the sector with solar energy and bacteria. The system converts light and carbon dioxide into building blocks for plastics, pharmaceuticals and fuels — all without electricity.
The global industrial sector accounts for more than half of the total energy used every year. Now scientists are inventing a new artificial photosynthetic system that could one day reduce industry’s dependence on fossil fuel-derived energy by powering part of the sector with solar energy and bacteria. In the ACS journal Nano Letters, they describe a novel system that converts light and carbon dioxide into building blocks for plastics, pharmaceuticals and fuels — all without electricity.
Peidong Yang, Michelle C. Y. Chang, Christopher J. Chang and colleagues note that plants use photosynthesis to convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to make their own fuel in the form of carbohydrates. Globally, this natural process harvests 130 Terawatts of solar energy. If scientists could figure out how to harness just a fraction of that amount to make fuels and power industrial processes, they could dramatically cut our reliance on fossil fuels. So, Yang, Michelle Chang and Christopher Chang’s teams wanted to contribute to these efforts.
The groups developed a stand-alone, nanowire array that captures light and with the help of bacteria, converts carbon dioxide into acetate. The bacteria directly interact with light-absorbing materials, which the researchers say is the first example of “microbial photo-electrosynthesis.” Another kind of bacteria then transforms the acetate into chemical precursors that can be used to make a wide range of everyday products from antibiotics to paints.
The authors acknowledge funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
- Chong Liu, Joseph J. Gallagher, Kelsey K. Sakimoto, Eva M. Nichols, Christopher J. Chang, Michelle C. Y. Chang, Peidong Yang. Nanowire–Bacteria Hybrids for Unassisted Solar Carbon Dioxide Fixation to Value-Added Chemicals. Nano Letters, 2015; 150407103432009 DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b01254