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Chellam Claims NSF Award for Research on Water Purification Using Membranes

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Tara Wijnanda Mullee, Public Relations Intern
Dr. Shankar Chellam, Assistant Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering
Dr. Shankar Chellam, Assistant Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering

Dr. Shankar Chellam's dedication to solving the worldwide issue of water decontamination has been rewarded with a $375,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation.

Chellam, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Cullen College of Engineering since 1999, has been named a recipient of the CAREER Award, the NSF's most prestigious accolade for new faculty members. The CAREER award recognizes scholars that are likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. Chellam's project, which the CAREER grant will fund, is the first of its kind.

Chellam's research focuses on optimizing water purification processes for municipal drinking water, or tap water. "The water we are forced to purify is not very pure to begin with," says Chellam. "We are forced to deal with reasonably dirty waters, especially in Houston."

Typically, groundwater is purer than river, lake or surface water, but Chellam works specifically with surface water because Houston is under a mandate to reduce the city's dependence on groundwater.

"Eventually you pump so much groundwater that the ground in Houston has sunk a few feet in many places," Chellam explains. "As the ground sinks, we have increased flooding."

A decreased dependence on groundwater demands an increased dependence on surface water, which must be subjected to greater levels of purification. The existing processes may or may not be sufficient, says Chellam.

Chellam's research centers on advanced water treatment processes involving the control of chemical and microbial risks through the use of nanofiltration and microfiltration membranes. Although earlier research has been conducted on the diffusive transport of salts across reverse osmosis, Chellam will be the first to perform direct measurements of the diffusion of natural organic matter across nanofiltration membranes.

Depending on the physical and chemical properties of the specific contaminant, a certain type of membrane can be chosen to most effectively filter the impurity. As an example, Chellam explains that if a researcher wished to remove some suspended matter, such as large, dysentery-causing bacteria, he or she would utilize a membrane with a larger pore size.

Chellam's research focuses on analyzing how the membranes function. In the future, once he better understands how they work, Chellam says he may delve into the field of membrane manufacturing.

This is the second time a UH engineering professor has received this honor from NSF. Ramanan Krishnamoorti, associate professor of chemical engineering, received the CAREER Award in 1999.

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