NEWT (Nano Enabled Water Treatment) Nanoscale solutions to a very large problem


NEWT 040416 Westerhoff_Lab_1_f

ERCs produce both transformational technology and innovative-minded engineering graduates.
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NSF-funded Nanosystems Engineering Research Center to enable deployment of mobile, efficient water treatment and desalination systems 

** NEWT is a joint designated collaboration between Rice University, ASU, UTEP and Yale University 

 

0629_NEWT-log-lg-310x310Water, water is everywhere, but we need more drops to drink.

The primary mission of the recently founded Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) Center, a consortium based at Rice University and led by environmental engineer Pedro Alvarez, is to produce more drinkable drops where they’re needed the most.

According to Alvarez, treated water is too often unavailable in parts of the world that cannot afford large treatment plants or miles of pipes to deliver it. 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.

The center, funded by a five-year, $18.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) award was founded to transform the economics of water treatment by using nanotechnology to develop compact, mobile, off-grid systems to provide clean water to millions of people around the world. A second goal is to make U.S. energy production more sustainable and cost-effective in regards to its water use.

NEWT is the first NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) based in Houston. ERCs are interdisciplinary, multi-institutional centers that join academia, industry and government in partnership to produce both transformational technology and innovative-minded engineering graduates 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.

Water has long been a passion for Alvarez, who studies treatment and reuse, remediation strategies for contaminated aquifers and the water footprints of biofuels. His work also covers the environmental implications of using nanotechnology, and the transport — and eventual fate of — toxic chemicals in the environment. As NEWT director, he partners with researchers at Arizona State University (ASU), Yale University and the University of Texas at El Paso.

The consortium set as its first goal the development of modular water treatment systems that can deploy almost anywhere in the world. But Alvarez said the potential to make a significant impact is already expanding, with opportunities to address wastewater treatment at oil and gas drilling sites, nano-infused desalination in urban environments, and improved water treatment through more efficient filtration at existing plants.

Alvarez paused between classes recently to talk about the center’s plans.

Q. Where do you think NEWT’s greatest impact will be in 10 years?

A. It will be in drinking water, providing cleaner water to millions of people who now lack it. I think it’s going to be in developing small, portable units that will not only provide humanitarian water but also emergency response.

There will be other Flints. There will be other Elk River spills that will impact municipalities and water. I think we will be able to respond to those things.

We will probably have tremendous impact on desalination. Low-energy desalination will be one of our hallmarks, I believe. Of course, we will be very good also at treating some of the oil-and-gas water issues, but that’s a more difficult problem.

I expect we’ll also have high institutional impact because people may be more ready to consider unconventional water sources using portable systems that are easier to deploy. People are going to start considering more and more decentralized water-treatment approaches, especially as new cities and neighborhoods and developments evolve.

Q. What kind of sources will your technology be able to treat?

A. Briny ground water, for example, could be a source of drinking water in areas experiencing drought. Or in coastal areas. I think we will see more of that. We’ll see more harvesting of storm water, certainly, and for some uses, even greywater.

Those are the kinds of things our technologies will enable, but it’s not just about technology. It’s about the philosophy of changing to more sustainable, integratable water management, where we reuse more water, where we tap water that we thought was of too low quality but, as it turns out, is perfectly fine and safe and more economical for a sole intended use.

Q. In what directions are the initial projects headed?

A. I think the first thing we’re going to have out there is an adsorbent filter being developed by [NEWT deputy director] Paul Westerhoff at ASU. It’s a block of carbon with embedded nanoparticles. These particles adsorb — that is, they grab onto and hold — oxyanion contaminants like nitrate, arsenic and chromate, and effectively remove them from the water supply. [Oxyanions are negatively charged ions that contain oxygen.] It will be part of a drinking-water treatment unit.

Q. Would the technology apply to large water treatment plants?

A. Yes. Though we originally intended to carve a niche in the decentralized water treatment market, we do aspire to bigger things as our products, materials and processes gain momentum.

I am sure there will be a lot that can be used by the municipal water treatment community. It’s a more difficult industry to penetrate because it’s very conservative. You have to convince them that a technology is going to save them a lot of money and that they don’t have to change too much of the infrastructure or the configuration of the plant.

We have some very good ideas of things that will fit them. If they’re already using membranes for filtration, for example, our membranes may offer better rejection of contaminants and perhaps less susceptibility to being fouled, so they will last longer without having to be replaced. They won’t clog up as easily. They will not use as much energy.

Q. Why did you pursue hosting this NSF center?

A. I think that we as scientists and as engineers, especially in developed countries, have a social debt toward many poor people who lack access to clean water because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.

The lack of clean water is a major hindrance to human capacity. It goes beyond public health: It’s directly tied to the need for economic development.

That is certainly one important factor in my passion to provide water to many. It’s related to the concept of world affirmation, the idea that the world can be a better place and we can do something about it. Providing clean water is one way to do it.

The other big incentive was to try to move towards energy self-sufficiency in the United States in a manner that is more cost-effective and more sustainable with regards to the water footprint.

A major challenge for our energy industry is that they need to operate and extract oil and gas in areas that are relatively dry and semi-arid, where water is scarce. And they need relatively large quantities of water to obtain this energy. To get a barrel of oil in Texas, you need about 10 barrels of water. To frack a well to get shale gas or shale oil, you may need up to 6 million gallons of water, again in areas where water is scarce.

Once it’s used, disposal of that water becomes a major challenge and a potentially serious source of pollution. So the solution to both scarcity and minimizing impact is to reuse this water. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do: develop systems that are small and easily deployed that can enable industrial wastewater reuse in remote areas.

Q. What can you do with nanoparticles that you couldn’t have done before?

A. We need to recognize that at the nanoscale, the properties of matter change. Some elements, such as gold, that are very inert can become hypercatalytic at that scale, and materials that are good insulators like carbon can become superconductors.

When you exploit these extraordinary size-dependent properties, it allows you to introduce multifunctionality at both the reactor and materials level. This combination of multifunctionality — for example, membranes that have self-cleaning and self-healing properties — with the nanotechnology-enabled ability to selectively remove pollutants allows you to have smaller reactors. These can treat even unconventional sources of water, difficult sources, that currently would require huge reactors and very large and complex treatment trains that are impossible to take to remote locations.

Making them smaller, multifunctional and modular brings you tremendous versatility to handle a wide variety of challenges in water purification. Nanotechnology allows us to do that. It’s essential to our vision of decentralized water treatment systems.

Q. You’re an environmental engineer who knows aquatic chemistry, and you rely on other kinds of engineers and scientists for different parts of the water systems.

A. Absolutely. This has to be a multidisciplinary collaborative effort to build this innovation ecosystem. We need people who know how to make materials and people who know how to characterize them, how to immobilize them, how to manipulate them — how to assess their reactivity and bioavailability and mobility, and eventually scale them up.

We want people who are good at designing and building reactors all the way to systems to think about the whole lifecycle, the techno-economic implications of these materials, to make sure they’re feasible and improve on current practices.

They have to do it in a way that’s sustainable and avoids unintended, undesirable consequences as well.

Alvarez is the George R. Brown Professor of Environmental Engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University.


Investigators

Pedro Alvarez
Menachem Elimelech
Naomi Halas
Qilin Li
Paul Westerhoff

Related Institutions/Organizations
William Marsh Rice University
Arizona State University
University of Texas-El Paso
Yale University

Locations
Arizona
Connecticut
Texas

Related Programs
Engineering Research Centers

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Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment or NEWT: Transforming the Economics of Water Treatment


0629_NEWT-log-lg-310x310NEWT 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.0629_NEWT-truck-lg-310x239

“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.”0629_NEWT-mod-lg-310x239

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.

0629_NEWT-log-lg-310x310Yale’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.”

Mike Wong Lake%20ZurichRice’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.

0629_NEWT-Alvarez29-lg-310x465Alvarez 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

LARGE_NEWTisometric

Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment or NEWT: Transforming the Economics of Water Treatment: Rice, ASU, Yale, UTEP win $18.5 Million NSF Engineering Research Center


LARGE_NEWTisometricNEWT 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.0629_NEWT-truck-lg-310x239

“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.”0629_NEWT-mod-lg-310x239

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.

0629_NEWT-log-lg-310x310Yale’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.”

Mike Wong Lake%20ZurichRice’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.

0629_NEWT-Alvarez29-lg-310x465Alvarez 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

LARGE_NEWTisometric