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New Initiative Boosts Economic Growth in the Great Lakes

Argonne's established proficiency in water research and development, technology commercialization, and workforce development will drive economic growth and access up to $160 million from the National Science Foundation over a decade.

Great Lakes ReNEW, a new, water-focused Regional Innovation Engine funded by the National Science Foundation, aims to drive economic development within the Great Lakes region and Mississippi River watersheds. ReNEW member states are outlined in gray. Image Credit: Great Lakes ReNEW/Current.

A new regional initiative by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) aims to harness the potential of waste in water to foster clean energy development, job creation, and economic expansion throughout the Great Lakes. This initiative will finance endeavors to extract clean water, nutrients, and materials for clean energy technologies from wastewater, simultaneously eliminating hazardous chemicals.

Great Lakes ReNEW, a consortium comprising research institutions, universities, utilities, investors, and development organizations across six states, will spearhead these endeavors. Leading the charge is Current, a water-focused innovation hub based in Chicago. Partnering in this initiative are the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago.

Great Lakes ReNEW will commence its operations with an initial $15 million grant, allocated for activities in Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin during the first two years. By achieving specified milestones, it has the potential to access up to $160 million in NSF funds, intended for utilization across all member states.

Great Lakes ReNEW aims to turn water-focused innovation into new technologies and businesses that can drive economic development in the Great Lakes region. Within ReNEW, Argonne brings a unique suite of capabilities that will help bridge the various sectors and facets of the project: our pioneering research and development capabilities across water and energy, our proven record for getting scientific discoveries out of the lab and into the marketplace, and our long-standing commitment to community outreach and workforce development.

Seth Darling, Chief Science and Technology Officer, Advanced Energy Technologies Directorate, Argonne National Laboratory

Seth Darling is also the Lead for ReNEW.

“Waste Not Water”

Clean water stands as a cornerstone of well-being and existence. As per Darling, the emphasis of ReNEW's endeavors will pivot towards the constituents within the water rather than solely the water itself, with a focus on devising methods to eliminate these substances in a manner that generates economic prospects for local residents.

For instance, municipal wastewater commonly carries nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen, which can be repurposed for fertilization purposes. Similarly, industrial waste streams often contain materials possessing significant worth for manufacturing, such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel. These elements are crucial components within rechargeable battery technologies, which power a wide array of devices, including personal gadgets and electric vehicles.

Argonne stands at the forefront of battery technology development, crucial for facilitating the shift away from fossil fuels. Presently, the majority of lithium, cobalt, and nickel utilized in batteries originate from overseas sources.

This scenario could potentially shift if ReNEW successfully aids in the development of safe and economically viable methods to extract these elements from industrial wastewater streams. The extraction of lithium from such feedstock would not only bolster our access to this essential material but also safeguard US dominance in rechargeable battery advancement. Moreover, it could pave the way for the creation of new job prospects and economic avenues for residents within the region.

Overcoming Separation Anxieties

Reclaiming substances from wastewater for commercial reuse presents considerable challenges. Existing methods for such extraction are often technically intricate, and the costs involved frequently surpass the value of the outcomes.

However, there is a glimmer of hope as Argonne is already at the forefront of pioneering inventive approaches for separating contaminants and other substances from water. A significant number of these techniques leverage advanced membranes and biological reactions to enhance the cost-efficiency of extraction processes.

Notably, these methods have demonstrated remarkable effectiveness in various green energy and manufacturing applications.

Separation technologies represent just one facet of Argonne's extensive water research initiatives. Argonne researchers collaborate across various disciplines to tackle challenges and devise solutions in other water-related domains. These encompass manufacturing, materials, modeling, artificial intelligence/machine learning, sensors and control, and sustainability.

Drawing upon Argonne's proficiency across these diverse areas is poised to facilitate the realization of ReNEW's objective to unlock the entirety of the $160 million NSF grant over the coming decade.

Argonne and UChicago have been partnering with Current on water research and innovation for several years now. This NSF Regional Innovation Engines award is a testimony of our growing partnership and impact.

Junhong Chen, Professor, Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, University of Chicago

Junhong Chen is Argonne’s lead water strategist, as well as co-PI and use-inspired R&D Lead for ReNEW.

Turning Innovation Into Equitable Opportunity

The $160 million earmarked for Great Lakes ReNEW represents a fraction of a broader initiative by NSF, amounting to a potential $1.6 billion commitment. This ambitious endeavor aims to establish regional innovation hubs akin to Great Lakes ReNEW across the United States within the next decade. Such an investment would mark one of the most substantial commitments to regional research and economic development in the nation's annals.

Yet, the initiative's ambition extends beyond merely fostering innovation; it aspires to catalyze economic expansion in regions that have not fully reaped the benefits of the technology sector's ascent in recent decades.

To ensure that residents can fully capitalize on the opportunities generated by the innovation engine, ReNEW will establish a regional infrastructure designed to bolster local education and workforce providers in crafting career pathways within the water industry.

This extensive workforce development initiative will encompass the Midwest, commencing in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Ohio. It will encompass initiatives targeting various educational levels, including K-12, trades and unions, community colleges, and universities.

We are elated to be part of the transformational effort to develop the water workforce of the future. Argonne has a strong record for creating robust STEM career pathways in fields such as computing, energy storage, and cybersecurity. And our efforts reach more than 35,000 students across all levels. We are excited to leverage our expertise and partner with ReNEW in building a water-focused ecosystem that creates pathways for water jobs across the Midwest.

Meridith Bruozas, Institutional Partnership Director, Argonne National Laboratory

Meridith Bruozas is also the Inclusive Innovation Lead for ReNEW.

Argonne has implemented a STEM outreach model, the STEM Opportunity Landscape Project, developed in partnership with the Digital Youth Network from Northwestern University.

This innovative model utilizes an online platform to map STEM resources within communities. By doing so, it facilitates easier access for residents of Chicago's South Side to locate these resources and fosters collaboration among providers to enhance their outreach efforts.

Bruozas added, “This is an example of how regional infrastructure can support local workforce development efforts. By connecting people, places, and programs around a specific industry, we can help develop space for jobs and career opportunities.”

If successful across these facets, Great Lakes ReNEW has the potential to cultivate a water-focused innovation ecosystem. This ecosystem would not only accelerate the transition to green energy but also foster the development of a more circular economy within the region. Additionally, it could lead to the attainment of richer and more equitable outcomes for residents across the Great Lakes area.


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