Solving Problems for the World’s Freshwater Supply

Four main considerations are important to head off a water crisis, said Chen. First, more research is needed to address water challenges. Second, computing innovations such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) should be leveraged to advance water research. Third, collaboration between the public and private sector is needed. Finally, we need to expand the public’s understanding that water is connected to climate change, energy, food and health.

“We urgently need scientific and engineering solutions to achieve more efficient management of our precious water resources,” Chen said. ​“Research and innovation around water conservation, recycling, reclamation and reuse are critical to meeting national needs.”

This is why the White House initiated a DOE-led U.S. Water Security Grand Challenge. Its goal is to advance transformational technology and innovation to meet the global need for safe, secure and affordable water. 

At present, there is an exciting, timely opportunity to transform the water and wastewater industry by integrating AI and ML into next-generation water technologies, products, services and utility operations. These types of advances have the potential to produce significant economic, energy and environmental benefits, while tackling the U.S. Water Security Grand Challenge. Both AI/ML and data science cut across the entire water system integration process and can serve as a nexus to connect all the pieces.

As such, Argonne recently launched a 10-year strategy to address the Water Security Grand Challenge in collaboration with its partners, called Water Science and Engineering empowered by Artificial Intelligence (Water + AI). The strategy covers the entire innovation spectrum from fundamental research to enabling technologies and integrated systems.

To meet this vision, the collaboration intends to develop three use-inspired intelligent systems that will drive much-needed societal impacts. The three systems are: (1) Intelligent fit-for-purpose water systems that provide water of the required quality and quantity to meet demand as it is needed; (2) Intelligent water-enabled energy systems that make more intelligent use of the cooling and waste water in power plants, the water involved in hydropower projects and the high-pressure water mixtures in fracking; and (3)  Intelligent management systems for water resources that would manage groundwater, surface water, waste water and water in polar regions and the atmosphere.

Performance metrics for these systems will drive research for enabling technologies and fundamental knowledge around six areas: materials, selective separation, sensors and controls, modeling and AI/ML, manufacturing and sustainability. 

“Understanding — and ultimately controlling — the interfaces between water and materials will enable the design of advanced membranes, sorbents, sensors and catalysts to efficiently increase supplies of fit-for-purpose water. This challenge represents the mission of the Advanced Materials for Energy-Water Systems Center, an Energy Frontier Research Center, headquartered at Argonne,” said Seth B. Darling, senior scientist and director of Argonne’s Center for Molecular Engineering.

Argonne offers a wide range of expertise under one roof, including materials science, chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, manufacturing, AI/ML, high-performance computing, sustainability analysis and quantum science and engineering. This extraordinarily wide-ranging expertise can be harnessed to address the most complex societal challenges related to water. Also, Argonne has world-class research facilities, such as the Advanced Photon SourceCenter for Nanoscale Materials and the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, all DOE Office of Science User Facilities; as well as the Materials Engineering Research Facility.

Our global water challenge is not isolated, and convergent solutions are needed because because, as Chen noted, they can also address social dimensions, such as environmental justice, policy, economics and human-technology interactions.

“Climate change leads to extreme weather patterns and droughts in some places and heavy rainfall in other places,” said Chen. ​“Heavy rainfall leads to flooding and water quality issues, challenging our aging water infrastructure across the nation.”

In addition to research taking place at Argonne and other institutions globally, individuals are called to action to help conserve water and mitigate other water challenges, such as minimizing contaminants in the environment, including the use and disposal of plastics, Chen said.

“Everyone can help make an impact regarding our food, health, manufacturing and other aspects of society,” said Chen. ​“And Argonne is committed to leading with strategies to help solve larger problems that society faces, as well as challenges our local communities face.”