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NSF to fund water and environment technology center

The National Science Foundation has awarded a five-year, $1.24 million grant to The University of Arizona and two other universities to fund a research center to investigate new clean-water technologies.

These new technologies include improved monitoring of large-scale water distribution systems to sensors at individual households capable of detecting dangerous chemical or biological contaminants.

The Water and Environmental Technology, or WET, Center includes the NSF Water Quality Center at the UA, and research units at Arizona State University and Temple University. Funding for the WET Center will begin Feb. 15. The UA's share of the grant is $380,000.

Ian Pepper, director of the UA Water Quality Center and a professor of soil, water and environmental sciences, said NSF funding has brought in an additional $10 million from both public and private sources over the last decade. This includes funding from the Technology and Research Infrastructure Fund, which are state sales tax revenues that target research in water and environmental sustainability, and a number of other areas.

The new WET Center allows the UA Water Quality Center to continue its "intermediate field-scale testing facility" that Pepper and others have dubbed the Water Village, a group of buildings on the grounds of the UA's Environmental Research Laboratory.

"The Water Village focuses on future treatment and distribution of water and wastewater, with enormous potential benefits for the community," Pepper said. "It focuses on research that provides good quality drinking water with acceptable purity, taste and odor characteristics, and is safe for human health and welfare."

Much of the strength of universities is in faculty expertise, and research facilities and equipment, but much of that is directed toward basic research. An industry-university cooperative research unit like the WET Center is designed to coordinate private and public sector units with research faculty to economically resolve problems.

The goal of the Water Village is to develop smart water distribution systems capable of self-monitoring and ultimately self-healing if there are contaminants within them, Pepper said. "We're a little bit away from self-healing, but the self-monitoring is something we're getting closer to.

"If the sensors went off, what would a person at Tucson Water do with that problem? Does that person shut down the entire water system of Tucson, or just to a neighborhood? In order to do that, we need to know where the contaminants originate and where they are going to go. We have a network distribution lab that does this."

Another lab, the point-of-use lab, develops and evaluates technology that is capable of taking out chemical and microbial contaminants prior to going into the consumer's home.

"The ultimate goal of the research and this is futuristic thinking right now would be to miniaturize in-line sensors in a box at a resident's home. Any water going into the home would go past the sensors and a little computer chip would tell if the water is safe to drink or not. The cost of this would be built into the cost of construction of new homes," he said.

Pepper said water reuse historically has been limited to irrigation of grasses and gardens. That could change in the future, where anticipated water reuse could include functions such as toilet flushing and fire protection.

"These are big changes and the Water Quality Center, the WET Center and the Water Village will all be involved in reclaimed water and making sure it is safe and does not have adverse health impacts in the community," Pepper said.


Contact: Ian Pepper
University of Arizona

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