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NSF Grant Funds Research at the University of Pittsburgh and Drexel University That Could Revolutionize Water Sanitation

PITTSBURGH (Aug. 2, 2019) — The National Science Foundation (NSF) will fund collaborative research at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering and Drexel University’s College of Engineering that could transform the way we sterilize water on demand and in larger scales. 

The project, “Collaborative Research: Regulating homogeneous and heterogeneous mechanisms in six-electron water oxidation,” will receive $473,065, with $222,789 designated for Pitt’s team. Led at Pitt by John Keith, PhD, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, the research aims to discover a simpler and less energy-intensive way to create ozone, a molecule that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved for water and food sanitation since 2001.  

“Whether ozone is good or bad depends on where it is,” explains Dr. Keith. “Ozone in the upper atmosphere shields the Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, but it's also the main ingredient in smog that damages your lungs if you breathe it.”

However, what makes ozone hazardous for lungs also makes it excellent for water sanitation. When ozone is “bubbled” into bacteria-infected water, it kills the bacteria and sterilizes the water, similar to chlorine in swimming pools or sanitation facilities. But unlike chlorine, which can persist in the environment and cause problems over time, ozone safely and fully decomposes in water after a few hours. Countries like Brazil have used ozone as a substitute for chlorine disinfectants for decades, but current technologies usually require too much energy, which increases the cost. 

Dr. Keith’s research group will use computer modeling to study how water can react to form ozone in electrochemical cells.  

“Fuel cells can be used to cleanly convert molecules like hydrogen and oxygen into useful electricity to power homes and cars with little to no harmful waste,” explains Dr. Keith. “We want to find out how to flip that around and use electricity to cleanly convert water into useful ozone.” 

Besides making safe drinking water more accessible, energetically efficient production of ozonated water would be extremely helpful for hospitals that need a continual supply of fully sterile water. If an electrochemical process is found, it potentially could be commercialized, perhaps as portable appliances available world-wide for home and commercial use.

Dr. Keith will be working with Maureen Tang, PhD, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia. The grant spans four years and begins in 2020. 

Author: Maggie Pavlick

Contact: Maggie Pavlick