ECU researchers get $1.4 million to develop desalination system

The University of North Carolina System announced that a team from East Carolina University has been awarded a grant through UNC’s Research Opportunities Initiative (UNC ROI).

The $1.4 million grant will go toward the development of a no-waste, sustainable water desalination system. It is the first time that an ECU-led team has received an ROI grant since the program began in 2014-15.

Dr. Kura Duba, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering and the principal investigator for the grant, said renewable wave and solar energy would be used to convert seawater into clean water and solid salt crystals as part of a system that would have positive effects on the environment.

“Current desalination technologies generate a considerable volume of brine waste — roughly one gallon of waste per gallon of clean water produced,” Duba said. “This liquid waste is challenging to treat. Also, since most seawater desalination facilities are located near the ocean for economic reasons, the discharge of brine waste during plant operation creates environmental impacts due to the locally elevated salinity that threatens the marine ecosystem. This project will contribute to the effort being made to help solve the problem.”

He said the effort also has economic implications for the coastal region of North Carolina.

“The project also enables ECU to build and sustain research capacity in an area of critical interest to eastern North Carolina based on its economic potential: renewable energy development and seawater desalination,” Duba said.

The grant runs for three years, helping fund four undergraduate research students, two graduate student researchers and one post-doctoral researcher.

Duba teamed with Dr. Faete Filho, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering, and Dr. Tarek Abdel Salam, director of ECU’s Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering (CSE3), in developing the research project. The effort also involves Dr. Zhen Zhu, assistant professor from the Department of Engineering; Dr. Mike Muglia, research assistant professor from the Coastal Studies Institute; and Dr. Mehran Elahi, a professor at Elizabeth City State University associated with the CSE3.

“I’m so proud of the way this team came together,” said Dr. Harry Ploehn, dean of ECU’s College of Engineering and Technology. “Really, Drs. Duba, Filho and Abdel-Salam deserve equal credit for identifying and addressing a unique research opportunity that we’re ideally suited to tackle. Their work could have a major impact on the long-term environmental and economic sustainability of coastal North Carolina.”

The N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center and UNC Charlotte’s Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) are also partners in the research to help pave the way for future commercialization of the technology.

Duba said an advisory board that includes representatives from the Department of Energy, Bureau of Reclamation, N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, N.C. State’s Clean Energy Technology Center, the Coastal Studies Institute, EPIC and CSE3 are on board to facilitate the project’s goals.

“This award is significant at multiple levels for the research team and ECU,” said Mike Van Scott, interim vice chancellor for ECU’s Division of Research, Economic Development and Engagement. “The ROI grant program is highly competitive, involving a rigorous external review process that evaluates both the science and commercial implications of the work. To be successful, a team of investigators from different universities has to come together and propose a compelling and impactful project.

“In this case, the project deals with several topics of societal concern: clean water, sustainable energy utilization and environmental impact. For Dr. Duba to lead a successful effort to secure ROI funding speaks to the quality of our faculty, the strong partnerships that exist across the UNC System, and research that has the potential to solve problems in society and contribute positively to the economy.”

ECU received one of three ROI grants from the UNC System. Funded through the General Assembly, the grants are designed to promote innovative and potentially game-changing research projects. Priority research areas for the UNC ROI program are pharma-co-engineering, advanced manufacturing, energy, data science, marine sciences, and military and security-related issues.

Researchers at N.C. State and Winston-Salem State received the other two grants.

“We’re grateful to state lawmakers for their strong support of UNC ROI’s important work,” said Dr. Kimberly Van Noort, UNC System senior vice president for academic affairs. “The research produced by our institutions continues to positively impact the lives of all North Carolinians through advancements in research areas such as engineering, energy and data science. We congratulate each of the winners, and thank all applicants for their strong submissions.”