Two Michigan State University professors, Volodymyr Tarabara and Tom Voice, are leading an ambitious project to purify the world's waters.
Tarabara and Voice are leading an international partnership of environmental engineers and scientists from two U.S. research universities, two research centers in France, and three institutions in Ukraine and Russia that will create new technologies for the project.
With the biggest funding of its kind - a $2.5 million grant - by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the team leaders are bringing together domestic and international expertise, as well as investing in students, to develop water purifying strategies using what are called "membrane-based" technologies.
"Membrane-based technologies selectively remove things such as chemicals and particles from water," said Voice, professor of civil and environmental engineering. "They are analogous to filters except they remove things that are smaller and separate on the basis of chemistry and size. Our project is looking at developing new types of membranes and membrane systems that perform better in water treatment applications."
Membranes can produce ultrapure water, removing almost everything.
"They are used in some places to turn sea water into fresh water," said Voice. "The challenge is to do this cost effectively, and we seek to do this by improving their performance."
Development of robust membranes is a significant opportunity to enhance the quality of water and, ultimately, public health, especially in developing countries.
"NSF's initiative to invest in international education and research is relatively new," said Tarabara, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. "It was motivated by the recognition that the world is becoming increasingly more global and that for American graduates to successfully compete with researchers from other countries, they have to be better prepared for the challenges of working in the global marketplace."
The team's strength, said Tarabara, is that each institution brings something unique to the table.
"For example, research to develop stronger hollow fiber membranes will unite the world-renowned expertise in carbon nanotube chemistry at Rice University with the knowledge of hollow fiber membrane manufacture and optimization at France's National Polytechnic Institute of Toulouse," he said.
"Development of high-flux membranes to remove heavy metal contaminants will include the group in Kiev, which is heavily involved in this work due to local environmental contamination, along with a group from MSU which is developing high-flux membranes that reject large molecules."
This project also internationalizes the experience of the students involved by enhancing the learning competencies that reflect the knowledge, attitudes and skills essential to living and working as global citizens when they graduate.
"One premise of our partnership is that students are powerful catalysts for research collaboration," Tarabara said. "Our research will be organized in international teams in which at least one doctoral student from a foreign institution will be teamed with a student from a U.S. institution."
Currently, seven graduate students - four from MSU and three from Duke University - are funded through this project.
This project also emphasizes diversity in graduate student recruitment and works with existing conduits to K-12 programs. The partnership will maximize opportunities for involvement of underrepresented minorities and women and will have an impact on future generations of scientists, according to Tarabara.
When the nonrenewable five-year, grant expires, Tarabara said, the project will live on.
"We are working with industrial partners in the United States and abroad to ensure that the project is sustained after the NSF funding is over," he said.