Water experts at NJIT, Drexel University and Rowan University are joining forces to tackle the increasingly complex challenges affecting water resources in the region, from shrinking supplies, to industrial contamination, to climate change.
In an alliance sealed this week on the NJIT campus with the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU), the three universities agreed to coordinate their resources and expertise in order to respond swiftly and effectively to problems presented by water utilities, energy companies, environmental firms, and public advocacy groups. Many of these challenges stem from the persistence of industrial contaminants in the sediments of major waterways in the Northeast.
"Our objective is to offer turnkey solutions to industry, to become a one-stop shop for solving problems. Contact one of us and we will be able to tell you who the experts are among our faculty, from flooding specialists to public health researchers. We will connect you with the right advisers on the spot," said Michel Boufadel, the director of NJIT's Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection and a founder of the partnership.
The demand for water quality protections has risen sharply in the last 20 years due to population growth and the expansion of industrial and agricultural operations. The array of new contaminants entering the water supply affects both animal and plant species, while posing a risk to human health.
"There are also water implications for energy policy, as water plays an important part in the production, storage and transportation of energy," said Moshe Kam, dean of Newark College of Engineering (NCE), which sponsored the event.
Kam also pointed out that water-energy solutions require multidisciplinary approaches that involve experts outside of the realm of science and engineering. Engineers who work on solutions to water-related challenges are likely to collaborate with other engineers, but also with economists, political scientists, sociologists and legal experts, he said.
Engineering deans and professors from the three universities were on hand at NJIT this week to sign the agreement, which calls in the near-term for the organization of seminars on water, the joint offering of short courses on water that draw on expertise at the three institutions, and the creation of a Web portal to facilitate communication between faculty and students in the three institutions. Boufadel said the partners expect to begin with seminars and courses in early 2015.
The effort will engage researchers from across disciplines to tackle a variety of problems affecting both quality and supply. Kam Sirkar, distinguished professor of chemical engineering at NJIT and an expert in membrane separation technology, mentioned, for example, the growing presence of endocrine disrupters in the drinking water supply and the need to reduce the amount of water and energy used in oil refining.
The MOU also addresses methods for spurring economic growth through collaboration with Industry, and the development of a skilled workforce in water technologies.
"These are three strong universities with distinctive and complementary strengths in water," said Charles Haas, the L.D. Betz Professor of Environmental Engineering at Drexel University and chair of the university's Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. "We all share an interest in translational research and we're all three motivated by finding solutions to real-world problems."
"We will tap into urban issues and build a strong research partnership," said Anthony Lowman, the Dean of Engineering at Rowan. "This is something that industry wants and needs."
The universities' research and technology will be "exportable, with relatively minor adjustments" to other regions of the U.S. and the world, said Boufadel, a specialist in water contamination, who provided technical analyses and remedial strategies in response to the two largest oil spills in U.S. history, the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez spills.
Boufadel added that researchers' work with industrial partners will be facilitated by the New Jersey Innovation Institute (NJII), an NJIT corporation created earlier this year to spur innovation and growth in a range of economic sectors by leveraging the resources of industry, government and higher education. NJII is led by Donald Sebastian, who is also the university's senior vice president for technology and business development.