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Water: The Very Life of the Party

Leonardo da Vinci said, “Water is the driving force of all nature.” He was right. Water, clean water, is necessary for civilizations and people. There’s the rub. Although there is physically plenty of water in the world, much of it is not potable or accessible, and the lack of clean water affects quality of life. According to the World Health Organization, at current usage rates, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed conditions by 2025. In the United States, one only has to look at California to see examples of water-stress. National security, health, economic stability — all require that the U.S. employs a variety of methods to maintain an adequate domestic water supply, including innovative conservation and reuse processes. That’s where William Phillip, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at ND, and his team in the Water purification and Advanced Transport Engineering Research laboratory (W.A.T.E.R.) lab come in.

W.A.T.E.R. lab team members focus their efforts on designing next-generation polymeric membranes for use in liquid phase systems. These membranes are able to control the rate of material transfer across an interface better than current commercial membranes, whether applied in situations like drug delivery, the development of pharmaceuticals, or the purification of drinking water supplies. Specifically, the team works to design membranes that can directly purify unclean water, but team members also design membranes that can be used in industrial processes to reduce water consumption.

The concept of using membranes is not novel; all living things rely on naturally occurring membranes, such as cell walls, which help organisms live and grow. Using man-made membranes for a variety of applications — purifying seawater, brackish water, or water produced during fracking, as well as large-scale desalination applications involving reverse osmosis, Phillip and the W.A.T.E.R. team are taking a unique tack as they begin to lay the foundational knowledge about the chemistry and nanostructure of such membranes, attempting to understand how the physical structure and chemical functionality affects transport across the polymeric membrane as it does in an organic cell wall.

They are tailoring each membrane, its very chemistry, to achieve improvements in the transfer processes depending on the application. The WATER lab is one of only a handful of labs worldwide that are using this approach in order to produce self-assembling block polymer membranes on a large scale.

Beyond water purification, the lab designs other membranes to be used in applications, such as the recovery of dilute components like rare earth elements or heavy metals, the processing of pharmaceuticals, and the generation of energy.  

A number of start-up companies are incorporating the technologies created in the W.A.T.E.R. lab into their core operations — to treat water more effectively or to control the transfer of solutes in pharmaceutical or other biomedical applications. But the benefits to this fundamental research, as well as the many applications worldwide have yet to be fully tapped.

Phillip Named DuPont Young Professor, June 2015

Phillip to Receive NAMS Young Scientist Award, March 2014

Filed under: Research Collection