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Molinaroli College of Engineering and Computing

  • Testing for safe water

USC team selected for NSF project to address equitable water solutions

According to the National Institutes of Health,  2.2 billion people lacked safely managed drinking water and two billion more lacked a basic handwashing facility worldwide in 2022. It is estimated that the numbers will continue to increase by 2030, unless proactive solutions are developed.

To help solve these pressing issues, a team led by the University of South Carolina’s College of Engineering and Computing (CEC) faculty was one of 15 multidisciplinary teams selected for phase one of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergence Accelerator program’s Track K: Equitable Water Solutions. The NSF is investing $9.8 million toward the track topic, which aims to develop innovative technologies and solutions to improve U.S. freshwater systems. 

Track K builds upon an investment in foundational research from two NSF-funded workshops. Based on findings from both workshops, there is an urgent need to combine existing knowledge with advancements in areas such as engineering, computing and environmental sciences to create new technologies and solutions. Some of the challenges that will be addressed include freshwater supply and management, and resiliency against rising temperatures, drought and pollution.

"Ensuring safe and equitable water resources while incorporating environmentally sustainable practices is imperative to our future," says Erwin Gianchandani, NSF assistant director for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships. "Through programs like the Convergence Accelerator, NSF is harnessing the nation's diverse talent to stimulate innovation, technologies and solutions to address fit-for-purpose needs across the nation."

Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Jasim Imran, an expert in water resources engineering, is principal investigator for USC’s $650,000 project, “COMPASS: Comprehensive Prediction, Assessment and Equitable Solutions for Storm-Induced Contamination of Freshwater Systems.” Co-principal investigators are CEC professors Austin Downey (mechanical engineering), Erfan Goharian (civil and environmental engineering) and Jason Bakos (computer science and engineering). Also involved in the project are Etienne Toussaint (USC School of Law), Mohammed Baalousha (USC Arnold School of Public Health), Meeta Banerjee and Thomas Crawford (USC College of Arts and Sciences), and Sadik Khan (Jackson State University). The project began this past January. 

Developing an equitable solution for access to safe water requires a diversity of expertise, viewpoints and lived experiences.

- Jasim Imran

The project addresses the challenges of freshwater quality and quantity by implementing next-generation sensors, advanced flood modeling and co-generated policy knowledge to enhance community resiliency. Extreme weather events often result in the release of toxic chemicals, sewage, and agricultural wastes, which disproportionately affect underserved communities with outdated infrastructure and limited resources. 

The research will utilize a modular sensor system, including unpiloted aerial vehicles and low-cost nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers, to monitor and assess contaminants in watersheds. The interdisciplinary team, which includes expertise in social sciences, public policy and environmental justice, aims to empower communities to implement equitable and sustainable solutions.

“Developing an equitable solution for access to safe water requires a diversity of expertise, viewpoints and lived experiences,” Imran says. “In collaboration with industry and government agencies, the team will leverage next-generation sensors to develop an enhanced understanding of the interactions between storm-induced contaminants and communities. A key outcome is that it will drive new knowledge on policy and planning that will be co-generated by scientists, engineers and policy experts.”

As part of the project, low-cost, field deployable NMR sensors systems will be developed to integrate data collection methods with hydrologic modeling. NMR also provides optimal sensing technology for developing a contaminant detection, quantification, and tracking system without restricting sensor development to focus on a specific contaminant. 

“The team will develop and deploy semi-permanent sensing systems consisting of NMR spectroscopy,” Imran says. “These systems will take two forms, an unmanned aerial vehicle-deployable smart buoy for aquatic environments, and a pump-through system that would sit next to a body of water and pump sampled water through a tube to the NMR system.”

The project will establish the groundwork for a potential second phase, which would lead to an enhanced understanding of community vulnerability to storm-induced contaminants, advancements in acquiring data for real-time flood and contaminant tracking, and equipping communities with tools to design adaptive, active and sustainable next-generation water infrastructure.

"Access to clean water, and especially equitable access, is and will be a challenge that is on top of mind, and one which requires a truly convergent approach, covering engineering, scientific, political, and social dimensions,” CEC Dean Hossein Haj-Hariri. “To be one of a small handful of teams to receive a planning grant for this topic is a testament that we have the thought-leading minds to be on top of this challenge.” 

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