Chicago Nonprofit to Receive $15M in Federal Funding to Help Launch Regional Water Sustainability Industry

Alaina Harkness, the executive director of the water tech nonprofit Current, appears at a Chicago news conference on Jan. 30, 2024, with Gov. J.B. Pritzker. (Dilpreet Raju  / Capitol News Illinois)Alaina Harkness, the executive director of the water tech nonprofit Current, appears at a Chicago news conference on Jan. 30, 2024, with Gov. J.B. Pritzker. (Dilpreet Raju / Capitol News Illinois)

A Chicago organization focused on drinking water sustainability will receive a $15 million federal grant over the next two years for a project aimed at jumpstarting a regional clean water industry. 

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The U.S. National Science Foundation awarded the grant to Current Innovation NFP, a nonprofit “innovation hub” whose mission is to “solve pressing water challenges caused by climate change and pollution.” It will receive one of 10 inaugural NSF Engine awards aimed at using science and technology to drive regional economies.

Current’s Great Lakes Water Innovation Engine, also called Great Lakes ReNEW, includes more than 50 regional partner organizations from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. 

Between the partner organizations – which range from nonprofits to educational institutions and for-profit companies – the project aims to train 500 people for jobs related to water technology within the first two years. 

While the initial grant covers two years, it could grow to an eventual $160 million investment over a 10-year period so long as the project progresses towards its goals.

At an announcement Tuesday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the federal funding a “win for our economy and for our environment” as climate pressures continue to mount.

“Fresh water is drying up. Nations across the globe are grappling with unprecedented water shortages, and over time, it will become the world's most precious resource,” he said.

Great Lakes ReNEW will develop methods for selectively separating wastewater molecules to retrieve different minerals used in the production of electric parts. 

“Our advantage in the Great Lakes region is that we are home to one-fifth of the planet's freshwater,” Pritzker said.

Current, which will lead the regional project, aims to launch and invest in dozens of water tech companies while using a testbed for those companies to develop technologies that aim to attract water-intensive manufacturers.

The end goal is a circular economy centered on refining wastewater, removing chemicals such as PFAS — sometimes called ‘forever chemicals’ — while retaining minerals like cobalt, lithium and nickel. These minerals are necessary when producing rechargeable batteries, most of which are currently produced overseas, making them valuable to domestic tech companies.

Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board president, said the investment will benefit communities affected by environmental racism.

“We simply will not survive if we don’t invest in clean water,” she said.

The Great Lakes hold about 90% of all fresh water in the United States and the National Science Foundation estimates 40 million people rely on the lakes for clean drinking water.

Alaina Harkness, executive director of Current and principal investigator of the project, said water scarcity is something to tackle as early as possible.

“Today, we waste too much of our water and the valuable materials it carries – materials that we need to power the electrification of our society,” she said.

Harkness said the environment and economy have always been inextricably linked.

“No economy or society is sustainable beyond the ecosystems and natural resources we all rely on,” she said. “We don't have time to waste, we do have two years and $15 million to show meaningful, measurable progress on new science to extract valuable minerals from our wastewater.”

Harkness said the project will “help address both our environmental and economic challenges, generating solutions to planetary concerns while creating good jobs and opportunities for people to build wealth and stability.”

Within the two-year period, it also plans to engage 1,000 youth across the region in STEM-related programs. 

Crafting sensor networks that can detect real-time information on chemical levels in water will be another short-term aim, said Junhong Chen, co-principal investigator and lead water strategist at Argonne National Laboratory based in Chicago’s western suburb of Lemont.

“The breakthroughs will play a pivotal role in securing our domestic supply chain, supporting electrification and advancing our clean energy future,” Chen said. “While it might sound like science fiction, I assure you it is not.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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