Gorski to use NSF CAREER award to expand access to clean water and electricity

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Christopher Gorski, assistant professor of environmental engineering at Penn State, will develop devices that use electricity to desalinate water and also can generate their own electricity, thanks to an esteemed National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career (CAREER) award.

“Clean water is essential to life,” Gorski said. “Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get due to climate change, population increases, pollution and agricultural demands. This work aims to develop a way to provide clean water where it’s not currently possible.”

Gorski’s project, titled “Battery-inspired electrodes for efficiently desalinating water or harvesting salinity gradient energy,” aims to provide the public with access to clean water and affordable electricity by developing electrochemical cells, similar to batteries, that use electricity to take the salt out of water. In addition, they also will be able to produce their own electricity when utilized where seawater and freshwater combine at the coast.

Several similar technologies have been looked at in the past, but their performances have been too low to significantly impact the water and energy sectors due, in part, to the fact that they used carbon electrodes. Gorski’s research will instead use metal-based electrodes, which should lead to dramatic improvements in system performance.

“Identifying the best materials to use is always tricky because it often involves some guesswork,” Gorski said. “The goal of this project is to develop a rational means for selecting materials by understanding how their fundamental properties affect their performances.”

Gorski also hopes to improve student learning through an educational plan. He will identify and repair misconceptions among engineering students studying electrochemistry and students in grades six through eight studying water and energy issues. The project will study how pre-existing misconceptions prevent learning and will look into whether alternative teaching methods can correct these misunderstandings.

NSF CAREER awards aim to support early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

The $500,000 CAREER award will be used to support a graduate student to do the research and to provide support for members of the Leonhard Center for Enhancement of Engineering Education at Penn State to help in assessing educational outcomes in the classroom.

Gorski joined Penn State in 2012. He received his doctorate in environmental engineering and science from the University of Iowa in 2009 and his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Purdue University in 2005.

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Last Updated April 24, 2018