Nanotech underscores Chicago/Negev research MoU

A research partnership to create new water production and purification technologies for water-scarce regions has been agreed between the University of Chicago (UChicago), USA, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), Israel.

A memorandum of understanding was signed in Chicago on 8 March 2013 by UChicago president Robert J Zimmer and BGU president Rivka Carmi.

At the same time, UChicago Tech, the university’s commercialisation arm, is currently featuring work on its website about the commercial feasibility of a nanotechnology desalination system invented by Dr Heinrich Jaeger, the university’s William J Friedman and Alicia Townsend professor of physics.

About the research agreement, Zimmer said, “A collaborative research and technology center based in both Chicago and Be’er Sheva focusing on 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.”

Leading the Chicago side of the collaboration will be Matthew Tirrell, the Pritzker director of UChicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering. Tirrell’s team will include scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, which UChicago manages for the US Department of Energy. Leading the Israeli side will be Moshe Gottlieb, BGU’s Frankel professor of chemical engineering.

“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,” Gottlieb stressed. “These new tools and insights afford a molecular-level approach to tackle an age-old human plight.”

UChicago and BGU researchers will meet next month in Be’er Sheva to begin discussing interdisciplinary, collaborative water-related research projects of technical and societal significance.

A grant from UChicago’s Innovation Fund is helping Jaeger to establish the commercial feasibility of his nanoparticle desalination system.

“Our system has the potential to cut (desalination) costs by using an ultrathin self-assembled nanoparticle membrane,” Jaeger says. “Due to its extreme thinness and excellent permeability characteristics, this nanofiltration membrane can be used for a wide range of nanofiltration processes at low pressures, including desalination.”

The membrane was developed by Jaeger and Xiao-Min Lin, a scientist at Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials, together with UChicago postdocs Jinbo He, Edward Barry and Sean McBride. At about 30 nm, they claim it is the world’s thinnest and has unique features that may turn out to make the crucial difference with this technology.

The size, shape and chemical structure of the membrane’s pores can be systematically tuned to optimize its filtration properties. As a result, it allows 100 times more flow at the same pressure. In addition, the self-assembly process used to fabricate it reduces costs.

Initially, Jaeger intends to target small, distributed or mobile water treatment systems. After being proven on a small scale, the technology could attract additional funding and be developed for larger systems.