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Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

Crain's Chicago Business: The "blue economy" has Chicago researchers seeing green. Current, a Chicago nonprofit focused on water innovation, has won a federal grant worth up to $160 million for scientific research and economic development. The National Science Foundation will provide the money over a decade for Current and the Great Lakes ReNEW project, which aims to remove toxic chemicals and recover precious minerals from water.

“We waste too much water and the valuable materials it carries. Too much of our water is contaminated. The common challenge is precision separation,” says Alaina Harkness, executive director of Current, which started in 2016 and has 10 employees.

It was one of just 10 applicants out of nearly 200 to be named an NSF regional innovation engine, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Jan. 30.

The move validates an economic development idea that's been gaining traction for several years: Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes as a whole are a resource that could draw business and people to Chicago and the Midwest as water becomes more scarce elsewhere. Water technology is one of a half-dozen areas in which Illinois is competing for massive amounts of funding created by the Biden administration and Congress to either advance or regain technology leadership.

Illinois is central to a $1 billion project to commercialize hydrogen production. Initiatives involving the University of Illinois and the Chicago Quantum Exchange are finalists for $40 million to $70 million grants as regional tech hubs designated by the Department of Commerce.

The state also is pursuing separate billion-dollar programs for next-generation semiconductor design and packaging.

The ReNEW water project aims to commercialize technologies and research underway at 15 universities in six states across the Midwest.

“We have all the research and commercialization strengths here in the Great Lakes region to become a water innovation superhighway,” says Junhong Chen, a University of Chicago professor and Argonne National Laboratory scientist who leads GreatLakes ReNEW with Harkness. “Now we can start building it.”

One goal is to figure out ways to remove so-called forever chemicals, such as those used in nonstick cookware, from water.

Researchers and companies also are focusing on water as more than just an input for industrial manufacturing, especially electric vehicles and the batteries that power them.

“Industrial wastewater contains critical minerals for manufacturing of products such as electric vehicles,” Chen said.

Many of the chemicals for batteries, such as lithium, are mined offshore, and it has become an economic and national security issue. They’re also expensive, and companies are focused on recovering them.

Gotion, a Chinese battery maker that’s building a factory near Kankakee, says it plans to incorporate a closed-loop water system at the plant that will recycle the water and recover chemicals that then will be reused in the production process.

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Awards and Announcements, Projects, Wastewater

Established in 1889, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) is an award-winning, special purpose government agency responsible for wastewater treatment and stormwater management in Cook County, Illinois.


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