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Great Lakes project selected to receive up to $160 million from NSF

Northwestern University serves as a core partner on the project

EVANSTON, Ill. — A new center to develop water-related innovations for the Great Lakes region received an inaugural National Science Foundation (NSF) Engines Program award, the NSF announced today.

The Great Lakes Water Innovation Engine (or ReNEW), for which Northwestern University serves as a core partner, will receive $15 million for two years and up to $160 million over 10 years. The program is one of 10 inaugural NSF Regional Innovation Engines.

The award will fund research to discover, develop and deploy innovative key technology to attract water-intensive manufacturers to the region, recover valuable energy and mineral resources from wastewater, and foster workplace opportunities — all while maintaining environmental health.

Led by Current, the Chicago-based non-profit water innovation hub, the team includes 50 partners from across six states within the Great Lakes region. George Wells, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering, will serve as Northwestern’s principal investigator and ReNEW’s Process Technologies thrust lead. Aaron Packman, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at McCormick and director of the Center for Water Research, and Nichole Pinkard, the Alice Hamilton Professor of Learning Sciences at Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy, will serve as key members of the ReNEW leadership team. Wells and Packman are faculty affiliates of the Paula M. Trienens Institute for Sustainability and Energy.

In addition, the project will train educators and implement programs on a learning platform called STEAMville K-Career, which was developed by Pinkard at Northwestern.

“Today’s announcement by the National Science Foundation enhances the ability of some of Northwestern’s top researchers to address a pressing societal challenge close to home and reflects the University's commitments to lead in decarbonization, renewable energy and sustainability as well as partner with our peer universities,” said Michael Schill, president of Northwestern. “We are proud to play a leading role in the Great Lakes Water Innovation Engine’s ambitious efforts to redefine water sustainability in the region.”

“We are thrilled to embark on this journey towards a circular and inclusive blue economy in the Great Lakes Region with the Great Lakes ReNEW consortium,” Wells said. “This effort aims to accelerate sustainable water reuse and environmental protection, amplify resource recovery from societal waste streams, and generate training and new jobs in the water and circular economy space. Northwestern is a core research institution in the Great Lakes ReNEW consortium, and we are very much looking forward to playing a leading role in this exciting new effort.”

Launched by the NSF Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships in May 2022, the NSF Engines program harnesses the nation's science and technology research and development enterprise and regional-level resources. Delivering on the bipartisan priorities outlined in the “CHIPS and Science Act of 2022,” the program received nearly 700 concept outlines from every U.S. state and territory. In August, NSF named ReNEW as one of its 16 finalists.

“The Great Lakes ReNEW program is a wonderful opportunity, bringing together private and public institutions to perform use-inspired research, product development, workforce development and translation,” said Eric Perreault, Northwestern's vice president for research. “Northwestern is a proud member of this consortium, and we look forward to collaborating with our partners to create benefits for the Great Lakes region that are far greater than what any of us could have done alone.”

With a potential NSF investment of nearly $1.6 billion over the next decade, the NSF Engines represent one of the single largest investments in place-based research and economic development in the nation's history — uniquely placing science and technology leadership as the central driver for regional economic competitiveness and job creation.

Serving the Great Lakes region, ReNEW will aim to turn waste into wealth by determining how to remove dangerous forever chemicals (such as PFAS), valuable minerals (such as lithium) and nutrients (such as nitrogen) from wastewater. Then, American manufacturers can reuse these extracted valuable minerals to enable domestic production of batteries and fertilizers, almost all of which are currently imported.

The Great Lakes Water Innovation Engine is geographically centered on an ecoregion that holds 90% of the fresh water in the United States. Forty million residents of the United States and Canada depend on the Great Lakes for clean drinking water. Built on strong and evolving partnerships across academia, government and end users in industry and utilities, the Engine will develop intelligent water resource recovery system testbeds at multiple scales to demonstrate, integrate and deploy these novel technologies to support sustainable water-intensive industry that is growing in this region.

“ReNEW is the culmination of our concerted efforts to develop water research capability at Northwestern, in Chicago, and across the Great Lakes over the last 10 years,” Packman said. “ReNEW will enable us to implement recent research advances from Northwestern to solve Great Lakes water challenges. It greatly extends the reach and impact of Northwestern water research.”

Great Lakes ReNEW’s 50 partners span research institutions, industry, investors, government and nonprofit organizations — all united by a shared goal to develop and commercialize better technologies to remove impurities from water and extract resources from wastewater.
ReNEW is backed by six Great Lakes states: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. Illinois’ support includes $2 million in state funding for the innovation engine.

“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.”

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