NSF funds joint Pitt/Drexel project on ozone and water sterilization

The National Science Foundation will fund collaborative research at the Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering and Drexel University’s College of Engineering that could transform the way we sterilize water on demand and in larger scales. 

The project, “Collaborative Research: Regulating homogeneous and heterogeneous mechanisms in six-electron water oxidation,” will receive $473,065, with $222,789 designated for Pitt’s team. Led at Pitt by John Keith, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, the research aims to discover a simpler and less energy-intensive way to create ozone, a molecule that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved for water and food sanitation since 2001.  

“Whether ozone is good or bad depends on where it is,” Keith explains. “Ozone in the upper atmosphere shields the Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, but it's also the main ingredient in smog that damages your lungs if you breathe it.”

However, what makes ozone hazardous for lungs also makes it excellent for water sanitation. When ozone is “bubbled” into bacteria-infected water, it kills the bacteria and sterilizes the water, similar to chlorine in swimming pools or sanitation facilities. Keith’s research group will use computer modeling to study how water can react to form ozone in electrochemical cells.  

Keith will be working with Maureen Tang, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia. The grant spans four years and begins in 2020.