World Water Day: Chicago groups lead effort to protect fresh water, Lake Michigan

New research to recover valuable minerals from contaminated water to make batteries, fertilizer

ByMark Rivera and Blanca Rios WLS logo
Friday, March 22, 2024
World Water Day: Chicago groups lead effort to protect fresh water
On World Water Day 2024, some Chicago groups are being highlighted for their efforts to protect Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- It's one of our most important natural resources: the fresh water of the Chicago River, Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes.

Alaina Harkness is on a mission to build a future where our water helps us thrive.

"We really think about the water resources we have in the region as precious but it's not just our fresh water. It's also the wastewater that we have. The industrial waste water that contains really valuable minerals, materials, nutrients and energy," said Harkness, who is the Executive Director of Current and CEO of Great Lakes ReNew.

The national science foundation established a regional innovation engine in awarding up to $160 million over 10 years to Chicago's water resource non-profit Current and founding Great Lakes ReNEW, a regional collaboration to tackle major environmental issues. That includes taking forever chemicals and valuable resources out of our drinking and wastewater.

"I would say the core grand challenge is selective separation and what that means is finding better more efficient ways to get the bad stuff out and recovery the valuable stuff and put it in to more productive use," said Harkness.

Harkness along with ReNEW Co-Principal Investigator Dr. Junhong Chen are working to rid our water of those toxic pFAS or forever chemicals. Forever chemicals don't break down and accumulate in the environment and in humans.. Other contaminants like lithium, cobalt, and phosphates can be reclaimed for reuse in battery manufacture and fertilizer.

"The major challenge we are addressing is the limited supply of fresh water and the contamination issue we are facing," said Chen who is also a Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering Professor.

But capturing those chemicals takes a stockpile of science. One pilot study on forever chemical removal is happening right now at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District using shared ReNEW research from University of Chicago and Northwestern.

Some of those molecules, to trap and attract those forever chemicals, are made at Northwestern University. The result of that reaction, these tiny beads that can filter the water. That's science that can be replicated across the country to clean and reuse the water we have.

"Forever chemicals pollute the water of perhaps half of all americans right now," said William Dichtel, Northwestern University Professor of Chemsitry. "They cause all sorts of negative health effects."

According to Dichtel, those tiny polymer beads can be made in a beaker by using oil and light but the ReNEW partnership is what can scale that science up.

"We want to be able to design technologies that are accessible for all of our citizens," said Chen. "The goal of Great Lakes ReNEW is to help move those breakthrough technologies through those stages and into the market faster.

This is a six state collaboration with more than 60 partners, academic institutions, private companies, municipalities and non-profits.

The same strategy to create specific molecules to trap forever chemicals can be used for precious minerals and phosphates. helping to make a circular economy all around water and ensure our supply chain for a clean energy future.