Water: Crucial for Our Existence

What does water have to do with materials? The answer may not be immediately obvious. We take clean drinking water for granted. It comes out of a spigot when we turn a handle. We let it swirl down a pipe as we sip at a water fountain.

Fresh water is a renewable resource, but not always available where it needs to be. When the demand for water outstrips the supply, the result is water stress. With climate change affecting weather patterns and the growth in demand for readily available clean water as developing nations industrialize, water stress is predicted to seriously impact the warmer regions of the world, including some of the most volatile nations around the globe. The World Resources Institute ranks the most at-risk countries for water stress by the year 2040, and the list includes Palestine, Iraq, and Syria. Water shortages for irrigation in Syria were likely instrumental in destabilizing that country. The U.S. Southwest and areas of China are also predicted to face increased water stress.

We live on a water planet. All living things have water-based chemistry, making water crucial for our existence. So says Tom Richard, director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Penn State and professor of agricultural and biological engineering.

“In our world today, climate change is a major concern, and the way we interface with climate change is almost totally around water,” he says.

Rising temperature is important, he continues, but it is also about droughts and floods, about our ability to use irrigation for food, having water for energy. Water cuts across the climate space, the food space, even energy. We don’t normally equate water and energy, but we need water to cool all of our power plants: nuclear, coal, gas.”

Food-energy-water nexus

The National Science Foundation has made the foodenergy- water connection a major interdisciplinary theme through a $75 million program called INFEWS for Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems. According to NSF, “The overarching goal of INFEWS is to catalyze the well-integrated interdisciplinary research effort to transform scientific understanding of the FEW nexus in order to improve system function and management, address system stress, increase resilience, and ensure sustainability.”

Water U.?

While Penn State is currently staking a claim to the title of The Energy University, a strong argument could be made that we are at least as much Water U. Across the university, researchers are deeply immersed in water research, trying to solve the kinds of problems in water management, pollution control or mitigation, climate forecasting, and desalination that affect our nation and world.

Again, according to Tom Richard: “We are in the top 20 universities in terms of our research in water. Among those top 20, our researchers have the highest citation per publication. That’s an indication of the quality of our work, because other researchers think it is important enough to cite. In fact it’s not even close. Our ratio of citations to publications is 20 percent higher than anybody else in the top 20. It’s out of the park quality.”

This issue of Focus on Materials will highlight a few of the MRI faculty working in materials-related water research.

Faculty/Research Experts: 
Richard, Tom