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From Lake Michigan’s shore to Israel’s desert, scientists join search for clean water

Gazing out at the vastness of Lake Michigan from an upper-floor office in a Loop high-rise, one might wonder why Mayor Rahm Emanuel is so concerned that there isn't enough water.

Ben Gurion water image
Ben-Gurion University Prof. Eilon Adar heads the university’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research.

Gazing out at the vastness of Lake Michigan from an upper-floor office in a Loop high-rise, one might wonder why Mayor Rahm Emanuel is so concerned that there isn't enough water.

Or why that concern last year spurred a surprising three-way shidduch (agreement) of the University of Chicago, Argonne National Lab and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, a sprawling academic and research center rooted, literally, in the heart of Israel's vast desert.

But with the lake just a few blocks to his back during a recent visit here, BGU Prof. Eilon Adar explained that the collaboration is a marriage of mutual interests that could result in breakthrough solutions to one of the world's most pressing problems.

"Rahm Emanuel and the City of Chicago have realized that, in spite of the fact that you have plenty of water, the quality of the water has been deteriorating very fast," said Adar, Director of BGU's Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research. 

This effort is all about making more quality water available, on a mass scale, while creating new industry.

"Which goes hand by hand," Adar said. "If you come up with an innovation and you want to implement it, you need the industry." 

At the urging of Emanuel, the universities and Argonne decided that water innovations and technology "might be a very attractive discipline to develop, because water crisis and water scarcity is a worldwide phenomenon, and maybe the associated water technology-industry might be an avenue to develop."

The Chicago side of the collaboration is being led by Prof. Matthew Tirrell, the Pritzker Director of the University of Chicago's Institute for Molecular Engineering. His team includes scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, which the university manages for the U.S. Department of Energy. The Israeli team is headed by 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," Gottlieb said. "These new tools and insights afford a molecular-level approach to tackle an age-old human plight."

Last March, the presidents of BGU and the U of C signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which laid out the details of the agreement. A formal signing ceremony, in Jerusalem with Mayor Emanuel and Israeli President Shimon Peres, took place in June. By late last year, five specific research areas were to be targeted, Adar said. Early this year, Israeli scientists will be in Chicago, working with their academic colleagues here. A month or two later, scientists for the U of Chicago and Argonne will be in Israel. And graduate students were being exchanged almost from the start.

"Everything associated with improving water quality" is a potential candidate for the project, he said. It could target surface water, below surface water, ground water, streams, ponds, rivers, lakes. 

"And we are talking not just natural water," he noted, "but effluents," the waste water left after industrial, agricultural or other uses. "When you treat effluents, you achieve two things. You ease the load on the environment, and maybe you can recycle. You can reuse the water more than one time." BGU already does some of this on its own campus, and at desert agricultural sites.

While Memorandums of Understanding are common in the academic world, Adar said, this one goes well beyond the norm.

A substantial fund provides resources for both sides to perform basic research and achieve preliminary results rapidly, within a year. Projects that appear the most promising will be funded for a second year, which will provide sufficient results to allow both sides to jointly seek major funding from prestigious American and European science foundations. 

"This unique, very fast establishment of a fund that provides seed money for the early stage of research is the result of a very close fundamental scientific relationship," Adar said. "And when the mayor is really looking to speed it up, that is what has been formed.

"This is great … what scientists are looking for. Small research money in order to move forward." 

Joel Schatz, JUF's director of News & Information, met with a wide range of BGU researchers during an American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev media trip last year.  

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