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The National Science Foundation Funds University Of Wyoming Research Into Making More Water Safe To Drink

Team members, from left, are Jonathan Brant, a professor of civil and architectural engineering; John Hoberg, a professor of chemistry; Laura de Sousa Oliveira, an assistant professor of chemistry; and Bruce Parkinson, a School of Energy Resources professor of chemistry.
Emily Fretland Photo
Team members, from left, are Jonathan Brant, a professor of civil and architectural engineering; John Hoberg, a professor of chemistry; Laura de Sousa Oliveira, an assistant professor of chemistry; and Bruce Parkinson, a School of Energy Resources professor of chemistry.

The National Science Foundation has awarded $1.77 million to a team of University of Wyoming (UW) researchers. They aim to make more of the earth's water potable by improving the purification, or desalinization, process. Cooper McKim spoke with UW chemistry professor John Hobert about the years-long effort.

Image of a Covalent Organic Framework
Image of a Covalent Organic Framework

John Hoberg: So let's just imagine a chicken wire fence. That's basically what we make on the molecular levels. And we can design these materials so that they are different size pores, ie the hole in the fence, we can put things that stick into those pores. So, that enables us to make a fence that will allow certain objects of a certain size to go through, or repel things that are charged. Now, we don't make these materials as a single layer, you have to kind of envision multiple layers of these fences on top of each other. When we make the materials, then we put them on a solid support. And that's called membranes. And then, we can start pushing water, contaminated water, etc, through these materials to filter out... to reject materials that we don't want going through that water.

Cooper McKim: As most folks listening probably know, the available water on earth is mostly not consumable. So as you're talking about this process, the general goal is purifying water that's otherwise not potable and making it potable, right?

Hoberg: Correct. You have to realize that we've only got... of all the water on the planet, only three, roughly 3 percent of it is drinkable. It's already a problem in many areas of the world, it's going to increase in those issues. Middle East countries pretty much use reverse osmosis to desalinate saltwater. And there are issues with reverse osmosis that we will hopefully overcome. Ideally, you would have some membrane that you just use gravity, i.e. just pour water, saltwater through it, and it separates out the salt, and then you can drink it. It also must be robust. You know, most of the things when you start desalinating or purifying water, you first chlorinate them to killing bacteria, for example, and chlorine can have a detrimental effect on many materials. So, you have to design something that's also robust.

McKim: So what's the ideal end goal for this kind of project?

Hoberg: The end goal is to filter out sodium chloride and doesn't use a lot of energy to perform this process. And thus, eventually, anyplace in the world, anybody would have the ability to obtain drinkable water from saltwater.

McKim: Right, in a reasonable, not too energy-intensive process.

Hoberg: Correct. Yep.

McKim: So I imagine that these projects could take decades. Do you envision this being in the middle of the process with this current grant to get you to that next goal, that next milestone or is it closer to the conclusion of what you're aiming?

Hoberg: It's more towards the beginning?

McKim: Okay.

Hoberg: Well, yeah, we're definitely not at the conclusion of it. But science is a slow process. There's a lot of failure in what we do. Optimistically, we'd like to have something at the end of this grant. But it's tough to predict that.

Hoberg: Well, this was John Hoberg, a professor in UW's Department of Chemistry. Talking about the recently achieved NSF grant. Thanks for making time. today. Thank you.

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