Research

Research in the Li Lab for Advanced Water Treatment Technologies focuses on novel materials, processes as well as system-level designs that enable energy efficient, cost-effective utilization of conventional and alternative water resources for residential, municipal and industrial water supplies.  We exploit discoveries in fundamental research at the interface of materials science, water chemistry, microbiology, transport phenomenon, and reactor engineering, to empower and drive technological innovation in water and wastewater treatment. At the fundamental science level, we are interested in understanding transport of contaminants in nanomaterials and nano-structured materials including nanosorbents, membranes and electrodes. In technology development, we focus on novel nanocomposite membrane and electrode materials for high efficiency desalination and ionic contaminant removal. A particular interest is the harvest of renewable energy, e.g., sunlight, for desalination and water purification. At the systems level, we develop analytical tools and comprehensive mathematical models to characterize urban water and wastewater infrastructure systems in different system configurations.


Membrane Fouling: Mechanisms, Advanced Materials and Control Strategies

Membrane fouling, categorized as organic fouling, inorganic fouling and biofouling, is a major issue impeding the application of membrane technology to water treatment processes. It not only increases the mass transfer resistance but also causes deterioration of effluent quality and ultimately shortens the membrane’s useful life. Therefore, it is important to study the basic mechanisms fundamentally for the development of functionalized anti-fouling membranes.

Novel Desalination and Water Purification Technologies

  • Nanophotonics Enhanced Membrane Distillation

    Supported by NEWT and Sunshort Program from Department of Energy, our group has developed Nanophotonics-enabled solar membrane distillation (NESMD) which greatly reduces the operation cost of MD by using sunlight as a heat source to heat up the feed water. It also provides a highly localized heating on membrane surface which reveres the temperature polarization on the feed side and increases the energy efficiency. In our lab, we actively work on developing novel materials for NESMD to improve the sunlight absorbance, mechanical durability, and chemical stability, and cost of photothermal material for NESMD. Current research involves developing core-shell structure carbon black coated nanofiber for improved NESMD performance.

    1. Wu, J., Zodrwo, K.R., Szemraj, P., and Li, Q.* Photothermal Nanocomposite Membranes for Direct Solar Membrane Distillation. Journal of Materials Chemistry A, 2017, 5(45): 23712-23719
    2. Dongare, P.D., Alabastri, A., Pedersen, S., Zodrow, K.R., Hogan, N.J., Neumann, O., Wu, J., Wang, T., Deshmukh, A., Elimelech, M., Li, Q.*, Nordlander, P., Halas, N.J.* Nanophotonics –Enabled Solar Membrane Distillation for Off-grid Water Purification. PNAS, 2017, 114 (27): 6936-6941. (doi:10.1073/pnas.1701835114)

  • Water Recovery From Urine in Space Missions

    One of the significant challenges facing future long-range space exploration is the need to provide adequate water supplies with minimal resource input from Earth. To meet this challenge, it is important to develop robust technology that can extract >90% of the water from the urine produced by crew members. Membrane distillation (MD) has shown promise for treating concentrated wastewaters at high recovery rates, but scaling can still be a problem. To develop robust, scaling-resistant membranes of >90% water recovery from urine-based wastewaters, it is important we firstly characterize the scaling behavior of synthetic and real urine in a membrane distillation system using experimental and modeling approaches.

  • Nanocomposite Membranes for Electrothermal Membrane Distillation

    Application of electrothermal surface heating material has further broaden application of MD systems, as it allows easier control and higher intensity of energy input. However, existing surface heating materials face major challenges in MD: low electrochemical stability and unable for high energy input. In our group, we developed a novel electrothermal surface heating element by in situ growth of nano-thin protective coating, which provides high thermal conductivity, high electric insulation, and anti-corrosion properties, all critical for application in saline solutions. 

    1. Kuichang Zuo, Weipeng Wang, Akshay Deshmukh, Shuai Jia, Hua Guo, Ruikun Xin, Menachem Elimelech, Pulickel M. Ajayan*, Jun Lou*, Qilin Li*, Multifunctional nanocoated membranes for high rate electrothermal desalination of hypersaline water (Under Review)

  • Interactions of Electrolyte Ions with Heterogeneous Surfaces of Carbon Nanomaterials

Nanomaterials for Electrosorption and Electrocatalysis

Antibiotic Resistance and Control in Wastewater Treatment

  • Propagation of Antibiotic Resistance in Wastewater Treatment: Impact of Treatment Processes and Operating Conditions

    This is HEARD PIRE project founded by NSF collaborated with Virginia Tech and other national and international universities. 

  • Inactivation of Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria and Genes

    Due to numerous causations including over-prescribing of antibiotics and over-use in farming, antibiotic resistant bacteria (ARB) and antibiotic resistant genes (ARG) are found in various environments which eventually are concluded in wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). Infected WWTP effluents are then dispersed to a variety of areas in the environment-leading to a greater spread of ARBs. Therefore, disinfection processes for ARBs and ARGs particularly in WWTPs is an area of critical focus. We aim to figure out effective disinfection method such as advanced oxidation processes, especially for the ARBs and ARGs.

Biofilms in Water Treatment Systems

Sustainable Urban Food, Energy and Water Infrastructures

  • Quantitative Modeling Tools for Design and Performance Assessment of Integrated Water Management Systems

    Safe and secure water supply is critical to the sustainability of cities. This goal, however, has become increasingly challenging due to rapid population growth, continuing urbanization and global climate change. A paradigm shift from centralized water supply to an integrated water and wastewater management approach has been proposed as a potential solution, but the discussion remains largely qualitative. The lack of quantitative assessment of the potential economic and environmental implications of such an approach prohibits data-driven policy-making and hinders technological development and implementation. We aim to develop quantitive models to assess urban water and wastewater infrastructure through decentralized direct potable reuse (DPR) of wastewater as a strategy to improve energy and water efficiency of urban water systems.

Engineering Implementation of Nanotechnologies for Water and Wastewater Treatment

Supported by NEWT, the project is the scaling up of our bench-scale systems to demonstrate and test the application potential of these novel technologies, such as NESMD and selective CDI, under practical circumstances. It also serves an educational purpose and give undergraduates opportunities to participate in research and engineering design.

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