At first glance it doesn’t seem that Chicago and Israel have much in common when it comes to water.

“Ben-Gurion is in the desert while the University of Chicago is right on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, one of the best sources of water in the world,” admitted Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, on a recent trip to Israel.

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Despite this Emanuel was in the country in late June to announce a major collaboration between the University of Chicago and Israel’s Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev to research novel, game-changing water technologies from the tiniest molecular level.

“While in totally different environments, their mission is the same: how to master the most promising research with the best minds to be at the forefront of research in water conservation,” he explained.

UChicago, BGU and the Argonne National Laboratory (which UChicago manages for the US Department of Energy) have jointly committed more than $1 million in seed money over the next two years to support at least five inaugural projects in the Chicago-Israel initiative. However, both sides anticipate that the collaboration will be long term.

“I’ve made water a component of every Chicago sister-city program in the world,” Emanuel told ISRAEL21c. “That’s the value I have put on it. I want Chicago to be at the epicenter of water research and conservation, and I couldn’t think of anybody better than Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which is at the epicenter of research on how to maximize scarce resources.”

Research proposals under consideration include fabricating new nano-materials to remove contaminants, bacteria, viruses and salt from drinking water at a fraction of the cost of current technologies; biological engineering to help plants maximize their own drought-resistance mechanisms; and polymers that can increase water retention in agricultural soil. The water-energy nexus — it takes energy to produce water and it takes water to produce energy – is also a focus.

Timely solutions for water problems worldwide

BGU President Dr. Rivka Carmi noted that the university has been active in water-related research for more than four decades, and especially over the past three years at its Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research in Sde Boker. Among the innovations from BGU scientists are the membrane that made reverse osmosis practical, and some of the desalination methods that allowed Israel to become a world leader in this field.

Myriad water production and purification inventions from Israel are already addressing needs across the world, but the new research project seeks solutions at a nano-level never before possible.

The joint effort will be guided by Prof. Moshe Gottlieb, founder of BGU’s Ilse Katz Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, and Prof. Matthew Tirrell, founder of UChicago’s new Institute for Molecular Engineering.

The initial memorandum of understanding was signed in Chicago on March 8. The teams then met in Israel to explore their mutual interests in water chemistry, materials science, microbiology and nanotechnology. A reciprocal visit to Chicago is scheduled for this autumn, following the final selection of the first collaborative projects.

Tirrell told ISRAEL21c that he and Gottlieb have maintained a warm professional relationship since 1977, when Tirrell was an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota and Gottlieb came there for post-doctoral research. This new collaboration, the result of the mayor and UChicago President Robert Zimmer’s long-simmering interest in creating a joint partnership with an Israeli university, enables the colleagues to work together once again.

Carmi, Zimmer and Emanuel at a Jerusalem press conference announcing the research partnership. Photo by Dani Machlis/BGU
Carmi, Zimmer and Emanuel at a Jerusalem press conference announcing the research partnership. Photo by Dani Machlis/BGU

“Many technological problems remain in the supply of water despite advances in desalination and recycling,” said Gottlieb. “With the proper resources, we’re certain this partnership will bring about timely solutions to water problems worldwide by working at a molecular level.”

Israeli expertise makes distance irrelevant

Tirrell said he’s flown to Israel three times in the past seven months, prompting Israeli Consul-General in Chicago Roey Gilad to quip that he hopes the new initiative will lead to the resumption of non-stop flights between Tel Aviv and Chicago. Gilad was instrumental in putting the collaboration together.

But even if the visitors will need to continue making stopovers on the journey between Illinois and the Negev, Zimmer says access to Israeli expertise is more important than the number of hours in transit.

“People who want to be ambitious in approaching the important challenges of modern society are looking for the right partner independent of distance,” Zimmer told ISRAEL21c. “If we didn’t have to travel far it would be easier, but for us, Ben-Gurion is the right partner.”

Zimmer said that although the purification challenges in the Great Lakes region are different from the scarcity issues being addressed in Israel, “our combined experience will be a tremendous asset in turning early-stage technologies into innovative solutions that may have applications far beyond local issues.”

The collaboration is part of an unprecedented investment to overhaul Chicago’s water infrastructure, Emanuel explained. The city’s 900 miles of old pipes, 670 miles of sewer, two huge filtration plants and several pumping stations on Lake Michigan all will be rebuilt or replaced. When finished around 2020, the project is expected to conserve two years’ worth of residential water now being lost every year through leakage.

“Chicago is on Lake Michigan and sits at the crossroads of the Chicago River, so we have a history of abundance of fresh water,” Emanuel said, “but everyone knows that over the next 30 or 40 years water will become a scarce resource and we have to become good stewards of that commodity.”

The collaboration aims to advance that agenda. “This is the beginning of what I hope is a long-lasting joint research and friendship between the city of Chicago and the state of Israel,” Emanuel concluded.