Using artificial intelligence to recover energy, nutrients and freshwater from municipal wastewater

Argonne and partners to develop an artificial intelligence-assisted system for resource recovery from municipal wastewater.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced it has awarded $27.5 million for 16 water infrastructure projects. The goal of all these projects is to reduce energy use and carbon emissions in our aging water infrastructure, particularly in wastewater treatment.

For one of the projects ($2 million over three years), DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, along with lead organization University of Chicago, Northwestern University and other partners, will be developing an artificial intelligence-assisted system for recovery of energy, nutrients and freshwater from municipal wastewater.

Water is an indispensable resource of our society as it is required for sustaining life and economic prosperity.” — Junhong Chen, Argonne’s lead water strategist.

This project is an important step forward in realizing Argonne’s strategic plan to enhance our leadership in water-related science through pioneering research, discoveries and innovations using artificial intelligence,” said Junhong Chen, Argonne’s lead water strategist and a professor in the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at UChicago.

The project’s approach will combine artificial intelligence and machine learning for online learning of system dynamics, mathematical modeling for optimizing energy and nutrient recovery, and life-cycle analysis and modeling with respect to both the science and economics to guide system design. It will also involve development of novel materials for efficient solar steam generation and wireless sensors for real-time water quality monitoring.

The resulting resource recovery system would benefit the water supply in underserved communities on Chicago’s South Side as well as the Great Lakes region in general, including Milwaukee and Detroit.

The ultimate goal of the project is to transform the existing U.S. treatment system for municipal wastewater into an intelligent water resource recovery system that will dramatically reduce energy consumption and become energy positive at a national scale.

The other partners include the Great Lakes Water Authority, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, NanoAffix and two regional water innovation hubs — Current and the Water Council. These partners, together with UChicago and Northwestern, will be contributing another $560,000 to the project.

Water is an indispensable resource of our society, as it is required for sustaining life and economic prosperity,” said Chen. ​Our future economy and national security greatly depend on the availability of clean water. However, there is a limited supply of renewable freshwater, with no substitute.”

The intelligent system concept for municipal wastewater recovery should also be applicable to other wastewaters, including industrial and agricultural.

The DOE support for this research comes from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Advanced Manufacturing Office. In addition to Chen, the project team members include Seth Darling (Argonne), Jennifer Dunn (joint appointment Northwestern and Argonne), George Wells (Northwestern) and Yuxin Chen (UChicago).

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.