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UC Chem Alum Wins R&D 100 Award

Chemistry alumnus David Rogers won an R&D 100 award for his contributions as part of a team developing biomimetic membranes for desalination at Sandia National Laboratories.

Date: 9/26/2011 11:00:00 AM
By: Ryan Varney
Phone: (513) 556-4190
Photos By: Sandia National Laboratories
University of Cincinnati Department of Chemistry alumnus David Rogers (BS, ’04; PhD, ’09) is part of a team led by Susan B. Rempe at Sandia National Laboratories that recently received an R&D 100 Award from R&D magazine.
 David Rogers explains the role of theoretical modeling in developing membranes for desalination.
David Rogers explains the role of theoretical modeling in developing membranes for desalination.

Sandia National Laboratories was recognized by R&D magazine for developing biomimetic membranes for desalination, a process that makes saltwater usable for municipal and industrial purposes.

“R&D 100 Awards are the equivalent of Emmys or Oscars, but for businesses,” says Rogers. “They’re given out by R&D magazine and receiving an award shows you have a successful project.”

The success of the project is important not only for Rogers and the Sandia Labs team, but for the world as well.

“In 2000, the world’s consumption of water was 64 billion cubic meters per year—and that’s municipal water. Industrial water was twice that,” says Rogers. “And according to the World Health Organization about one-fifth of the world’s population are living in areas where water is considered scarce.”

Desalination uses the abundance of saltwater to combat such scarcities. However, the energy needed to turn saltwater into usable water, through reverse osmosis, can create very high costs. By producing more efficient membranes, which help filter the salt from the water, these costs can be lowered exponentially.

Rogers works on the theoretical modeling of the membranes where his team discovered that much of the inefficiency is due to the geometry of the pores within the membranes. “Industrial technology uses generic polymers that are mesh, like spaghetti. When water goes through it, it has this tortuous path that has all kinds of winding. By making the pores straighter you get a better geometry while still having the interaction with the molecules that stops the salt from going through. So we have the desalination functionality but it also doesn’t resist water quite as much.”

That reduction in resistance is where the savings occur and determining these savings is another part of Rogers’ job. He studied the Perth (Australia) desalination plant and discovered that the reverse osmosis process used there has about 62% efficiency. By using membranes with straighter pores, the efficiency rate would go up and the operating costs would go down.
Computer modeling allows researchers to see how biomimetic membranes mimic the design features of natural desalination channels.
Computer modeling allows researchers to see how biomimetic membranes mimic the design features of natural desalination channels.

In terms of a dollar amount, Rogers cites several areas where the cost per cubic meter of water is over five dollars. Using a more efficient membrane could push the cost down to less than a dollar per cubic meter. Multiply that by the 9.4 billion cubic meters per year that desalination plants produce worldwide and it becomes clear that the potential yearly savings can be measured in billions of dollars.

Since getting his PhD in physical chemistry from the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, Rogers has been working at Sandia National Laboratories as part of his postdoctoral research. He credits his lab experience at UC as a reason for his success in the biomimetic membrane project. “Working in a lab during graduate school has direct ties to what I’m doing here. I worked a lot with Tom Beck and the training that I got in his lab was very focused and helpful for simulations.”

"David Rogers, as a graduate student in my group, developed a new theory for examining ion hydration, an important problem in biophysics. He is one of the most talented young scientists I have known, and has moved on to a postdoc at Sandia National Laboratories,” says Professor of Chemistry Tom Beck. “He has made several novel contributions already in his postdoc, including new methods for studying selective ion channels and an innovative information theory approach in statistical mechanics. His work has been instrumental in the R&D 100 award that his group at Sandia was just awarded. David's research has led to international recognition in the theoretical chemistry/physics community for its insight and depth."

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