UIC brings research, workforce development to Great Lakes Water Innovation Engine 

Photo: Jim Young, UIC Engineering

A new multistate partnership including the University of Illinois Chicago will create a hub of research and economic development around water resources in the Great Lakes region. 

Great Lakes ReNEW, funded by up to $160 million through the National Science Foundation Regional Innovation Engines program, is a collaboration of more than 50 partners, including research institutions, industry, investors, government and nonprofit organizations.

At UIC, ReNEW will engage a broad spectrum of departments and research centers to address comprehensive concerns ranging from economics and data sciences to community and economic development, climate resiliency, environmental justice, governance issues, social equity, policy analysis and advocacy. 

Faculty involved in ReNEW include Brian Chaplin from the College of Engineering and Ning Ai from the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, with more than 20 additional researchers from across campus involved in the proposal. 

“What’s unique about ReNEW is that it will support collaborations between academia and industry,” said Chaplin, professor of chemical engineering. “We will take use-inspired challenges that come from industrial partners and solve these challenges at a fundamental level. This approach will create a tight feedback loop so that we reach solutions and applications much quicker.” 

The overall mission of ReNEW is to “turn waste into wealth” seeks to invent new materials, processes and sensors that facilitate the extraction of toxic chemicals and valuable minerals and nutrients from wastewater. These innovations will create economic opportunities for the Great Lakes region, as industries transform harvested materials into batteries, fertilizers and clean energy. 

Chaplin will co-lead the ReNEW research and development focus area on selective separations, which focuses on extracting dangerous “forever chemicals,” such as PFAS, and useful elements, such as lithium and nitrate, from water. The program will build upon UIC research strengths in solving water-related challenges by developing new technologies, such as membranes that trap and destroy toxins

UIC will also be central to ReNEW efforts on workforce development, ensuring that residents of Chicago and other Great Lakes communities fully benefit from the economic opportunities created by this emerging field. Activities include curriculum development, job training and career coaching for a rapidly evolving “blue economy” built around water resources, as well as explorations of policy and economic issues such as water financing. 

“This is a very rare opportunity to connect technical, fundamental research and workforce development into one program,” said Ai, associate professor of urban planning and policy. “We want to plan proactively and meet the gap between the current educational system and future job demand around water issues.” 

Participation in ReNEW will also benefit UIC faculty and students, providing access to a broad network of research collaborators, water technology testbeds and incubators and partnerships with companies and community groups. These opportunities will enable accelerated technology development and adoption and provide students with expanded research experiences and job training in a new economic sector. 

ReNEW was one of 10 groups across the United States chosen as an NSF Regional Innovation Engine from a pool of more than 700 submissions. The collaboration includes partners from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, and is led by Current, the Chicago-based water innovation hub.

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