Clean Water the Goal

Nanotechnology, Membrane Research Goes International

Interested in ensuring the world maintains a safe supply of drinking water?

Does the idea of working with the latest in membrane technology and nanomaterials sound intriguing?

How about the opportunity to work side-by-side with like-minded students and researchers in Europe?

A unique program developed by scientists at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, Michigan State University, in conjunction with major research centers in France and Eastern Europe, is making it possible for Duke engineering students to not only further their research interests, but get immersed in how different cultures approach similar scientific challenges.

Known as PERMEANT (Partnership for Education and Research in Membrane Nanotechnologies), the program is open to both undergraduates and graduate students interested in gaining international perspective on how to maintain a safe water supply in the face of rising populations and other environmental pressures.

“We have a growing need for water, both in terms of quality and quantity,” said Mark Wiesner, one of the program’s founders. “We are living in a rapidly urbanizing world, and having quality water will be a major factor in potentially limiting our life expectations.

“As a result, there is a pressing challenge for us as scientists to come up with new technologies for treating or re-using the water we do have,” continued Wiesner, who as professor of civil and environmental engineering also heads up the newly created Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology. “We believe that membranes will play a critical role in these new technologies, with nanotechnology as one of our tools.”

Membranes play a critical role in many types of water treatment processes, and as such, researchers will always be striving to improve their efficiency. Also needed are membranes with special properties, such as the ability to neutralize bacteria and other microbes. Another growing avenue of research is the development of membranes that resist clogging or fouling.

Wiesner believes that nanotechnology is an important route to that end, and that the interactions between students from different countries with their international counterparts can be catalyst for some of these discoveries.

“Our research is organized in international teams, with doctoral students supported by separate funding at a foreign institution teamed with students from a U.S. institution supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF),” Wiesner said. “Students in these research teams work on related topics that naturally encourage international collaboration between graduate students and their faculty advisors. The team-based approach allows students to compare classroom experiences, share instructional materials, help one another with research methodologies, and forge long-term international contacts.”

Duke’s Matt Hotze is currently working on a post-doctoral fellowship in a University of Marseilles laboratory in Aix-en-Provence, France, after having worked in the lab several times before. He is continuing his research into possible applications of carbon-60 buckyballs in water treatment membranes.

“The program is a great way to feel connected with the global community of environmental engineers,” Hotze said. “When one of them comes here, it is a unique opportunity to see what we take granted in our American laboratories through the eyes of an outsider. We American scientists tend to do things the same way, so it is enlightening to watch how others approach the same problem in their own setting.”

Hotze would like to pursue academic engineering. “If I decide to go into academia, I will already have solid and meaningful connections with other researchers.”

Like Hotze, Lauren Wessel worked in the Aix-en-Provence lab, but as an undergraduate. A Pratt Fellow who is graduating this spring, she continued the research she conducted on fullerenes in France in the labs back at Duke.

“It was eye-opening to see how other labs worked,” Wessel said. “Since I am interested in the chemistry underlying nanotechnology, I use many different types of machines. The French have instruments we don’t have, and vice versa. Not only did I have to learn their scientific methods quickly, but I also had to adjust to cultural differences. I had to learn fast!”

Other institutions participating in PERMEANT include University Kiev-Mohyla Academy, Kiev; Volgograd State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering; and the National Polytechnical Institute and the National Institute of Applied Sciences, both in Toulouse, France.

“In 1820, the first water treatment plant opened in Glasgow, Scotland,” Wiesner said. “The model for treating water hasn’t changed that much since then. We need to try completely different approaches, and membrane and nano technologies will be part of it.”

In order for that to happen, it’s up to the scientists of today to nurture the scientists of tomorrow.

For more information about the program, go to http://permeant.cee.duke.edu/.