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Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

A generous investment from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) Regional Innovation Engine Program will support the critical work of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) and other Midwest water utilities due to the collective efforts of water research partners at Current, Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago and other research institutions and universities. 

President Steele at NSP Awards
MWRD President Kari K. Steele, second from left, appears at a Chicago news conference on Tuesday with Professor Junhong Chen of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago. Current will receive about $15 million over two years from the National Science Foundation, with up to $160 million over 10 years. (Photo by Ny’ajai Ellison)

The NSF has pledged to award up to $160 million over 10 years to Current, the Chicago-based water innovation hub, and local research partners that have launched a six-state collaboration known as the Great Lakes ReNEW Initiative. The initiative sets out to join the MWRD and other utilities in efforts to promote sustainable water systems and water-focused technology.

“We applaud our partners at Current, Argonne and the University of Chicago for joining the MWRD in our passion and dedication toward the research that offers critical protection for our water environment,” said MWRD President Kari K. Steele. “Thank you to the U.S. National Science Foundation Regional Innovation Engine Program for recognizing this critical work that supports research to advance the innovation required to improve our infrastructure and water resources for years to come.”

ReNEW was one of 10 groups from across the United States to be chosen as an NSF Engine, representing up to $1.6 billion, according to Current. It was selected from 16 finalists, 188 invited proposals, and more than 700 initial submissions. Among the research endeavors, the partners aim to help turn waste into opportunity by figuring out how to remove dangerous forever chemicals from the wastewater stream to protect the environment and uplift the economy. 

“The Great Lakes are a vital natural resource for the health, wealth, and security of our entire nation,” said Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker. “That’s why I’m thrilled that Current was selected to receive this federal award that will help transform our Great Lakes region. Thanks to investments like these, our top-tier workforce, and our industrial resources, we’re leading the clean water and energy revolution.”

What was once considered sewage flowing to MWRD water reclamation plants is no longer a waste product, but instead a collection of raw resources to be recovered and reused beneficially. In 2023, the MWRD was recognized for the third time as a Utility of the Future Today, as an agency that is forward-thinking, innovative, a leader in sustainability and resilience, and transformative in the way that it recovers resources.

“Waste has no place in this world of increasing water and resource scarcity,” said Alaina Harkness, executive director of Current and principal investigator for Great Lakes ReNEW. “Our engine will find new ways to recover and reuse water, energy, nutrients, and critical materials from our water. These innovations will create economic opportunities for residents of our region; help strengthen our domestic supply chain for clean energy technologies; and address water quality and security issues around the world.”

The MWRD will play a pivotal role in this project by serving as a guiding force in research initiatives, offering essential support to research partners, and conducting bench or pilot tests for technologies demonstrating potential and feasibility for application within its facilities. MWRD engineers and scientists welcomed a delegation of NSF and Great Lakes ReNEW Initiative project leaders to the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant in August 2023 to review the integral operations at one of the world’s largest wastewater treatment facilities and lay the groundwork for the groundbreaking study.

“The Great Lakes ReNEW Initiative provides incredible collaboration and unparalleled research toward enhancing the infrastructure and systems we have in place to treat the region’s wastewater,” said MWRD Commissioner Eira Corral Sepúlveda. “By making these contributions, the NSF is empowering our partners at Current, Argonne, the University of Chicago and other research partners to help us on the ground level at the MWRD protect our water environment.”

Aerial view of Stickney plant
The MWRD’s Stickney Water Reclamation Plant, serving central Chicago and 46 suburban communities to transform about 700 million gallons of wastewater each day into clean water, will benefit from the U.S. National Science Foundation Regional Innovation Engine Program in support of the Great Lakes ReNEW initiative to focus on sustainable water innovation solutions.

Established in 2016 as a partnership between the City of Chicago, the MWRD and World Business Chicago, the nonprofit Current aims to leverage the robust water economy of the Chicago region. They expedite the research, development, and commercialization of next-generation water solutions and technologies, addressing water and energy challenges on regional, national, and global scales, while also building support for collaboration and partnership between the public and private sector and university community.

Collaborators include the Current Consortium Partners, such as the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, The University of Illinois, the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, private industries, and entrepreneurs, as well as other regional universities, including Chicago State University, University of Cincinnati, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Marquette University, the Ohio State University, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. 

ReNEW will address the recovery and reuse of nutrients in wastewater and the removal of forever chemicals, known as Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS), from the water supply to protect water resources in the Great Lakes Region. Under ReNEW's proposal, chemicals and minerals removed from wastewater would also be repurposed by American manufacturers for battery production and other materials-heavy products. The MWRD and research partners will investigate PFAS sensors and removal technologies, as well as innovative systems to recycle and recover rare earth elements like lithium, cobalt and nickel for industrial applications.

Great Lakes ReNEW is made up of more than 50 partners that span research institutions, industry, investors, government and nonprofit organizations with a shared goal of developing and commercializing better “selective separation” technologies. 

NSF’s goal is to transform each of its 10 regions into self-sustaining, technology- and innovation-driven hub of economic activity.

"The inaugural NSF Engines awards demonstrate our enduring commitment to create opportunity everywhere and enable innovation anywhere," said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. "Through these NSF Engines, NSF aims to expand the frontiers of technology and innovation and spur economic growth across the nation through unprecedented investments in people and partnerships. NSF Engines hold significant promise to elevate and transform entire geographic regions into world-leading hubs of innovation.”

Read more information about NSF Engines program.

Press Release
Awards and Announcements, Stormwater

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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