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UW’s Li-Oakey Receives DOE Grant to Study Liquid Separation Mechanisms Using Smart Materials

August 23, 2019
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Katie Li-Oakey, a UW associate professor of chemical engineering, recently was awarded a $699,904 DOE grant to study how to more efficiently remove pollutants from water. (UW Photo)

A University of Wyoming associate professor of chemical engineering has received a Department of Energy (DOE) Basic Energy Sciences grant to investigate using smart membrane materials to more efficiently remove pollutants or impurities or to recover valuable materials -- such as rare earth elements -- from water or other industrial liquids.

These materials could prove effective at better separating metal ions from liquids such as craft beer; removing dyes from discharged water used in the textile industry; and recovering tiny oil droplets that remain in produced water generated by oil and gas exploration.

“By studying the complex liquid chemistry, we want to create a zero-discharge process that can recover high-purity valuable elements in water while producing reusable water, for example,” says Katie Li-Oakey, in UW’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

Li-Oakey recently received the $699,904 DOE grant for her project, titled “Turnable, Nonporous, Two-Dimensional Covalent Organic Frameworks for Size and Charge Separations.” The three-year grant, announced earlier this month by the DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences, began Aug. 15 and runs through Aug. 14, 2022.

“We will investigate how different water and organic solvent chemistry interact with responsive barriers of different pore sizes, charges and surface properties (water-like or water repelling),” Li-Oakey explains. “This level of fundamental understanding will not only help answer persisting questions related to barrier surface contamination, but also help with making more efficient, cost-effective and long-lasting separation products for water and other industrially solvent treatment.”

She will serve as the grant’s principal investigator (PI). John Hoberg, an associate professor of chemistry, and Bruce Parkinson, a professor of chemistry, will serve as the grant’s co-PIs.

“The persisting challenge in separation, such as water treatment, is that high-pollutant rejection is often at the cost of low-product yield,” Li-Oakey says. “One of the causes is that rejected pollutants block the channels for liquid, such as water transport. Complex water chemistry, such as various metal ions and organic molecules such as dyes used in the textile industry, often further complicates the issue.”

The grant’s objectives are to fundamentally push the boundary of highest achievable selectivity and flux; and to develop clear guidance for next-generation separation barrier product design that can take advantage of the scientific findings.

“When you separate water from pollutants, you want to do it cheaper and faster,” Li-Oakey says. “For example, if you have 100 million gallons of water to treat per day, you need the process to be fast. But, if it goes too fast, the rejection of pollutants often decreases due to pollutant deposition on the membrane surface. This is why the DOE is investing in our project, since the smart materials used in the study have the potential to repel pollutants from the membrane surface without compromising the purified water flow rate.”

Under the grant, the following UW students will participate in the research:

-- Joshua Anderson, a junior from Pinedale majoring in chemistry.

-- Nunzio Carducci, a senior from Laramie majoring in chemistry.

-- Valerie Kuehl, a third-year chemistry graduate student from Beulah, Colo.

-- Rylie Pilon, a junior from Gillette majoring in chemistry. 

-- Veronica Spaulding, a first-year chemistry graduate student from North Fork, Calif.

Additionally, Phuoc Duong, a postdoctoral fellow in chemical engineering, will contribute to the research.

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