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UW Water Researcher Balances Needs of Industry and Environment

June 1, 2016
Savannah Bachman installs a filter in Jonathan Brant's membrane and water resources lab.
Savannah Bachman installs a filter in Jonathan Brant's membrane and water resources lab.

The importance of Jonathan Brant’s research is evident when you do something very simple: Go to the sink, turn the knob, and see the stream of water come pouring out.

But, there are two sides to Brant’s approach. As an environmental engineer, he hopes to ensure the future sustainability of Wyoming’s water resources and its role in municipal and industrial markets. As a faculty member in the University of Wyoming College of Engineering and Applied Science, he wants to create new knowledge and technologies for transforming impaired water into fresh potable water.

His research is focused on developing efficient ways to use produced water, or water produced as a byproduct in the development of oil and gas wells. He and a team of students develop filtration and membrane systems to clean and separate the water from the well’s hydrocarbons.

Years down the road, the ultimate goal is to be able to produce safe drinking water. For now, he’ll take repurposed water for drilling. What’s encouraging about the research is the potential for Wyoming’s economy. If produced water can be filtered to separate precious metals, it can be leveraged to attract new business and a larger workforce.

“If you look at water out of a river, wastewater and produced water, it contains lots of things that are of value in one way or another,” Brant says. “These can be gold, lithium, salt or organics to make energy. What we do is focus on developing technologies and treatment schemes to separate those resources in a way that we can utilize them for beneficial purposes.”

Brant, who is from Stanton, Va., earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the Virginia Military Institute. He went on to graduate school at Nevada-Reno and earned master’s and Ph.D. degrees. The journey continued at Rice University, where he ventured into material synthesis and characterization in nanomaterials for environmental application. Then it was on to Duke University, and after working in consulting in Seattle, an academic position at UW caught his eye. He moved to Laramie in 2008 and now is an associate professor.

The sounds of water gurgling through pipes and drains are interrupted only by the whirr of gauges and agitators in Brant’s lab in the basement of the Engineering Building. Several techniques for purifying water are on display here, most notably membrane technologies. Membranes come in many forms: pressure, electricity, chemical, osmotic gradient, temperature, functionalized nanoparticles and magnetism.

Ming Li is pursuing a Ph.D. at UW after earning his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in China and a master’s degree from Michigan State University. He studies membranes and their effects on trace organic particles in the water, which can be dangerous for humans.

“Before I came here, I just thought of myself as a scientist,” he says. “But, I came here, and now I am a true engineer.”

Other than an economic impact, this research has the potential to help conserve Wyoming’s water, which can be in short supply in dry years.

“Wyoming is the fifth-most arid state in the nation,” Brant says. “Of most importance is making sure we utilize the water to its maximum extent without costing us a lot of money. That’s where the process development comes into play.”

Savannah Bachman performs solid-analysis tests in the lab by testing produced water to analyze it for rare-earth elements. If any are present, the next question becomes: Can they be extracted at an economically viable rate. The long-term goal is to install membrane technology on work sites. As water is produced out of wells, it can be filtered, and precious minerals can be set aside with no interruption to the rest of the process.

Bachman is working toward her second bachelor’s degree after earning one in environmental geology from Northern Arizona. She sees the opportunities in the untapped market of rare-earth mineral extraction.

“There has not been any effort or money put toward extracting it from water,” she says. “You take a ton of dirt, and only find a tiny amount, but you end up tearing up a lot of land. If we can pull it out of water, where it already exists, we’re not only cleaning the water, but we’re also removing something we can use.”

Aside from industrial use, Brant uses his membrane research to investigate the future of local water systems. He believes, at some point in the future, Wyoming will have to go to a “closed-loop system,” meaning the water that goes down the drains and toilet will be processed and treated, and come back through the tap for consumption.

“To do that, there are lot of questions and lots of ways we can do it better,” he says. “The technologies that we are developing will allow that path from your toilet to your tap to be safer and more economical and technologically sound. The more efficient we are with our water, the less we have to take out of the environment. It benefits us because what we put down the drain impacts the rivers and oceans.”

If that notion gives you pause, Brant points to the water systems of major cities. That water has been consumed and flushed down the toilet many times before it gets to the faucet.

“We’re already doing water recycling, but we’re relying on nature to dilute it and do the treatment for us,” Brant says. “Do you trust that process, because you’re used to it more than engineering and controlling and quantifying it at a water recycling plant? Track your water bill over the past 10 years. You’ll see that number is continually going up, for a variety of reasons. You’ve got to pay to get that water out of something. If we can control and manage the system, we can reduce some of the costs associated with extraction.”

With news stories about California’s drought entering its fifth year in 2016 and the Flint, Mich., water crisis, management of water resources has been brought into the limelight. To that end, Brant’s students are part of UW’s American Water Works Association group, which has worked with the Laramie city engineer to get pipe samples of the town’s distribution system to monitor the pH levels.

“You don’t have to look very far to see the value of water,” he says. “You can ask the folks in California and Michigan. When their water runs out, consider how that impacts their lives. To appreciate it, turn your faucets off completely, and see how you do.”

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