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UNC researchers work toward safer water across the globe

The Sustainable Access to Clean Water Creativity Hub team poses at the Old Well. Photo courtesy of Theo Dingemans.

UNC professor Theo Dingemans is working with a team of researchers on a membrane-based water purification tool with the goal of providing safer water for populations across the globe.

The Sustainable Access to Clean Water Creativity Hub team is designing new technology to safely remove many different contaminants from drinking water. The team is made up of polymer chemists, membrane engineers and computational modelers, including engineers from the College of Arts and Sciences and the Gillings School of Global Public Health, as well as researchers from the University of Texas at Austin.

“The team is unique in that it brings different bits of expertise together,” said Dingemans, a professor in the department of applied physical sciences and a principal investigator on the Sustainable Access to Clean Water Creativity Hub team. “Through that, we’re able to tackle the design of membranes for clean water.” 

Greg Forest, distinguished professor of mathematics at UNC and a co-principal investigator on Dingemans’ team, said membranes typically have a very disordered, random solid structure. The team is trying to use a new, recently-developed liquid crystal polymer in order to design an orderly structure within the solid parts of membranes and their pores.

“The game is to get the water through and to trap and remove what you want to remove, in particular salt, by desalination,” Forest said. “We’re looking at ways to tune the sizes of pores so that they are specific to the kinds of ingredients in the water that you want to filter out.”

The membrane is being engineered to remove a whole range of pollutants from water, including pathogens, heavy metals and oil. Dingemans said he hopes that the new technology will lay the groundwork for global, affordable membrane production.

“We’re able to desalinate, we’re able to capture heavy metals, we’re able to separate oil and water mixtures,” Dingemans said. “So if we can help provide new design rules to better-working, cheaper membranes, that would make it a success.”

Dingemans and his team tackled their water purification research through UNC’s Creativity Hub initiative, a research funding initiative that concentrates talent and resources on ideas for defined periods of time. 

As one of two inaugural winners of the Creativity Hubs initiative, Dingemans and his team will receive a $250,000 award to help them implement their project, plus $250,000 in additional funding during the second year of the project.

Rebecca Beechhold, a sophomore majoring in psychology and minoring in environmental science and studies, works on a student-run committee to plan and implement energy education projects on campus. 

Beechhold said she thinks the efforts of the Sustainable Access to Clean Water Creativity Hub are very important in providing clean drinking water to those who lack access to it. 

“I think the work they’re doing to purify water is very important. Having access to clean water is not a luxury that everyone has across the world, especially in developing nations,” Beechhold said. “Contaminated water can be detrimental to development in children and for the health of anyone who consumes it.”

Beechhold said purifying water will also prevent the spread of toxins, diseases and other contaminants in water, which may also help wildlife and promote healthier ecosystems.

“I think this project will have several positive impacts,” Beechhold said. “If it’s implemented nationally or even globally, it could be the difference between life and death for people who live in areas with contaminated water that is toxic or disease-causing.”

Like Beechhold, Dingemans said he is optimistic that the research done by the Sustainable Access to Clean Water Creativity Hub will impact the environment in a positive way. 

“There’s no silver bullet, it’s not that one membrane can do everything,” Dingemans said. “But if we can create a solution for desalination that makes it cheaper and more accessible to a larger population on the planet, that would be great.”


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