Israeli-Chicago plan to study water shortages touted

A research initiative between the University of Chicago and Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev enjoyed some rare political star power Sunday, as both Israeli President Shimon Peres and Mayor Rahm Emanuel attended a signing ceremony in Jerusalem to celebrate the new agreement.

The two schools soon will begin funding a series of research projects aimed at creating nanotechnologies that address water shortages in arid climates. The project's goal is to find new materials and processes for making clean, fresh drinking water more plentiful and less expensive by 2020.

The Chicago research team will be led by Matthew Tirrell, director of the university's Institute for Molecular Engineering. Tirrel's group will include scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, which the university manages for the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., which recently signed an affiliation agreement with the school.

U of C, Ben-Gurion and Argonne have jointly committed more than $1 million over the next two years to support inaugural projects, according to the university. The first initiatives are slated to begin this fall.

"We feel it is critical to bring outstanding scientists together to address water-resource challenges that are being felt around the world, and will only become more acute over time," University President Robert J. Zimmer said in a statement. "Our purification challenges in the Great Lakes region right now are different from some of the scarcity issues some of our colleagues at Ben-Gurion are addressing, but our combined experience will be a tremendous asset in turning early-stage technologies into innovative solutions that may have applications far beyond local issues."

Zimmer signed the agreement alongside Ben-Gurion President Rivka Carmi at a ceremony held at the president's residence in Jerusalem. Emanuel told Israeli reporters that he wants Chicago to become a leader in water conservation, starting with a massive overhaul to the city's aging water system.

The event marked Emanuel's final public appearance in Israel, where he had traveled earlier this month to commemorate the bat mitzvah of his youngest daughter, Leah. During his trip, Emanuel also spoke at the Israeli Presidential Conference alongside former President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

He was scheduled to leave Israel on Sunday.

sstclair@tribune.com
Twitter: @StacyStClair