University of Virginia associate professor of chemical engineering Geoff Geise has received a National Science Foundation collaborative research grant that could lead to new materials manufacturing processes with the potential to address clean water shortages.

Geise’s team is using the $325,654 grant to fund multiple investigative strategies and disciplinary approaches including advanced manufacturing, materials science, chemical engineering and electrochemistry to better understand an additive manufacturing technique called electrospray. Electrospray applies high voltage to a liquid to form an aerosol spray that can be precisely controlled.

The process is similar to 3-D printing — the most familiar example of additive manufacturing — except that the building materials are individual molecules deposited on a surface to form a thin film or membrane with characteristics designed for specific purposes. This adaptability offers significant advantages over conventional processes for manufacturing film coatings, the researchers say. Conventional methods cannot reliably produce very thin ion exchange membranes with tunable properties that can be achieved with electrospray.

“One benefit of this approach would be that manufacturers could quickly adapt the process to make tailored water treatment membranes in response to emerging contaminants or pollutants in water,” the team wrote in the National Science Foundation grant abstract. “Results from this research benefit the U.S. economy and society by enabling the manufacture of very efficient membranes that provide better access to clean water.”

Geise's lab is collaborating on the research with a team led by Al Geib Professor of Environmental Engineering Research and Education Jeff McCutcheon at the University of Connecticut School of Engineering.

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Ph.D. student Saringi Agata is one of the researchers working on the electrospray project.