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Chicago, Israel team up to clean water

by Golda Shira, Israel Correspondent/White House Correspondent

JERUSALEM – Israeli President Shimon Peres confessed to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel that during Peres’ first visit to the Windy City, he felt profound jealousy when he saw the outstanding beauty and size of Lake Michigan and Chicago’s abundant water resources.            Which is one of the reasons why the Land of Milk and Honey and the City by the Lake have joined forces to work to make fresh drinking water more plentiful and less expensive by the year 2020.

In a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Israeli President Shimon Peres joined in the signing of an agreement between the University of Chicago and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev on a research initiative designed to apply the latest discoveries in nanotechnology to create new water production and purification technologies for deployment in areas of the world where freshwater resources are scarce.

The two schools will fund several research projects aimed at finding new materials and processes for making clean water. The goal of the projects is to develop more efficient ways of using water to produce energy and using energy to treat and deliver clean water.The Chicago group will include scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, which the university manages for the U.S. Department of Energy.

The plan includes the establishment of a research center based in both Chicago and Beersheba where “the molecular aspects of water science and technology will result in a powerful new approach for addressing the various and pervasive challenges to the global water supply,” said University of Chicago president Robert J. Zimmer at the ceremony.

 “Clean, plentiful water is a strategic issue in the Middle East and the world at large, and a central research focus of our university for more than three decades,” said Ben-Gurion University President Rivka Carmi. “We believe that this partnership will enhance state-of-the-art science in both universities, while having a profound effect on the sustainable availability of clean water to people around the globe.”

“Chicago’s worldwide leadership in water management continues to grow, as we invest in our water infrastructure, creating jobs for our residents and economic activity in our neighborhoods. I strongly support this partnership and I look forward to working with leading institutions like BGU and University of Chicago to create innovations and opportunities for the future,” said Emanuel. The mayor emphasized that he’s made water a key element in all of Chicago’s Sister City programs.

The Chicago-Israel effort began with the signing of a memorandum of understanding in Chicago in March to explore a research partnership that would innovate water production and purification technologies to meet a growing thirst for fresh water resources globally. Leading the efforts are Matthew Tirrell, the Pritzker Director of UChicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering, and Moshe Gottlieb, BGU’s Frankel Professor of Chemical Engineering.

“Water is the most fundamental molecule for sustaining all forms of life, but it is in dramatically short supply in many parts of the world,” Tirrell said. “Water in all parts of the world faces numerous threats, which in turn endanger human and economic health.” The dangers include increased demand driven by energy production, agricultural runoff, depletion and contamination of aquifers by salt water and by industrial, organic and biological toxins.

 “In this collaboration we intend to take advantage of the great strides achieved over the last decade in nanotechnology, materials science, biology, and chemistry at both institutions, and the world-class facilities available at Argonne National Laboratory,” said Gottlieb. “These new tools and insights afford a molecular-level approach to tackle an age-old human plight.”

The Institute for Molecular Engineering will commit tens of millions of dollars to the molecular engineering of water resources over the next decade. BGU researchers will have a significant presence at Hyde Park to further facilitate the collaborations.

Tirrell’s and Gottlieb’s teams met for two days in Israel in April to explore their mutual interests in water chemistry, materials science, flow in soils and other porous substances, microbiology and nanotechnology. A BGU contingent will pay a reciprocal visit to Chicago this autumn, following the final selection of their first collaborative projects, to participate in a workshop that will sharpen their research focus.

Because there have been five meetings between the two universities so far and there will be many more in the future, the strong recommendation that El Al resume direct flights between Chicago and Israel met with the enthusiastic approval of all.

The first wave of research proposals include fabricating new materials tailored to remove contaminants, bacteria, viruses and salt from drinking water at a fraction of the cost of current technologies; biological engineering that will help plants maximize their own drought-resistance mechanisms; and polymers that can change the water retention properties of soil in agriculture.

One proposed project would attempt to devise multi-functional and anti-fouling membranes for water purification. These membranes, engineered at the molecular level, could be switched or tuned to remove a wide range of biological and chemical contaminants and prevent the formation of membrane-fouling bacterial films. Keeping those membranes free of fouling would extend their useful lives and decrease energy usage while reducing the operational cost of purifying water.

The Israeli government founded BGU with a mandate to spearhead the development of the Negev Desert. BGU has worked at the forefront of water-related research for more than four decades, having developed several innovative technologies in the field. Work at the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research has helped make it possible for Israel to produce more than 60 percent of its fresh water needs by desalination.

Emanuel said the new technologies created by the collaboration will help in his efforts to purify Chicago’s water.

The mayor has made water conservation and restoration one of the key initiatives in his effort to overhaul Chicago’s infrastructure. He plans to replace 900 miles of century-old water pipes, replace 670 miles of sewer pipes, rebuild 1,000 catch basins and pumping stations for water on Lake Michigan, and transform the Chicago River.

The river has become sullied by its historic use for transportation and commerce. The current administration has already begun a major renovation transforming this vital resource into a haven for boating, sculling and other pleasure and recreational activities.

While contrasting Chicago’s location on the shoreline of one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world, and Ben-Gurion University’s in the Negev desert, the mission of the two is the same, said Emanuel, “understanding that fresh water is a commodity, it’s known as a scarce resource. You have to become a good steward of that commodity.”


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