World Water Crisis a Focus of Shannon's Research

Mark Shannon
Mark Shannon

Mark Shannon helped develop the world’s smallest fuel cell as part of his wide-ranging research efforts, but his most important work probably involves tackling the world’s critical water issues.

Beckman Institute researcher Mark Shannon is a leading advocate for a completely new approach to dealing with what 200 scientists said was one of the two biggest problems facing our planet in the 21st Century: a worldwide water crisis. Lending potency to his perspective is the fact Shannon not only has the science to support his views, but he also brings passion to the discussion.

We have more children who die from bad water, contaminated water, in this world than those who die from AIDS and breast cancer the world over. – Mark Shannon

Shannon is a faculty member in Beckman’s 3D Micro- and Nanosystems Group and the J. W. Bayne Professor in the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering at Illinois. His research work involves the development of new small scale fabrication methods and the design and fabrication of new micro- and nanoscale devices, including a recent project that created the world’s smallest fuel cell. Shannon has other titles and affiliations but his main office and perhaps his most important work can be found in the WaterCAMPWS Center in the Mechanical Science and Engineering Laboratory.   

Shannon is Director of WaterCAMPWS, a National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Technology Center with the formal title of The Center of Advanced Materials for the Purification of Water with Systems (WaterCAMPWS). The WaterCAMPWS mission statement says its goal is “to develop revolutionary new materials and systems for safely and economically purifying water for human use, while simultaneously developing the diverse human resources needed to exploit the research advances and the knowledge base created.”

For Shannon, topics involving water resources are more than scientific. Even though his Ph.D. is in Mechanical Engineering, Shannon became fascinated a dozen years ago with an intellectual inquiry about why nature’s methods of water purification are so superior to those devised by man.

“Nature does it so efficiently,” Shannon said. “It just goes right after the species that are undesired because those are in the parts per trillion, and it leaves all the potable constituents that are in water alone.

“It actually all started from an intellectual inquiry: why is it that we spend so much more energy and effort to treat water than nature does? It came down to an answer that hit me one day, which is that we take the water out of the solution; nature takes the unwanted species out of the solution and leaves the water behind. As I got into this and started seeing the societal implications, I became more and more aware and became educated just like others that this is the problem facing the world.”

Shannon is not alone in that belief. A United Nations report in 1999 quoted 200 scientists as saying that water shortage and global warming were the two biggest problems facing mankind in the 21st Century.

When it comes to describing that worldwide problem, Shannon has an informed passion that makes him a go-to expert on topics involving water and the problems the world increasingly faces regarding usable water resources (usable for all human uses) and supplies (treated water used as drinking water). Shannon has spoken at the White House and was co-author of a review paper for Nature magazine in the March 20, 2008, issue that brought attention to an imminent crisis that draws only occasional interest from the media. In that paper, the authors wrote of a “worldwide revolution” being fueled by research into water purification and treatment.

Shannon has some pretty startling numbers at his disposal when discussing pressing water issues. He talks about how more children die from contaminated water in this world than those who die from AIDS and breast cancer combined; about the one-and-a-half-billion people across the world who depend on river systems that are threatened due to declining mountain snowpacks; and about how people in Urbana pay $1.16 per meter cube for a thousand liters while in the slums of New Delhi it’s more than $100 for the same amount.

“They carry it on their back and it is bad water,” Shannon said. “The water there would literally kill us if we drank it. These are the kinds of things I work on, trying to inspire people on a global basis.”

Shannon believes, however, that there is reason for optimism – thanks in large part to research and the development of new technologies, including those he is working on. In the Nature article, the authors wrote about developing “environmentally friendly tools for killing microbes, membrane bioreactors, nanoscale filtration,” and how these and other systems could be used for “disinfection, decontamination, reuse and reclamation, and desalination of water supplies across the globe.”

Shannon said at the time the article was published that a focus on research is a key to addressing the crisis. 

“As dire as the growing problems are with a lack of enough clean water in the world, I have a great deal of hope that many of these problems can be solved by increasing research into the science and technology of water purification,” he said.

Shannon also finds reason for optimism in the economic benefits that would accrue from changing our approach to water resources, especially in terms of cost-saving and worker production. He said that in parts of central Africa, two out of five workers lose a year’s worth of work due to illnesses related to contaminated water.

“The flip side is, the optimistic thing is, if we put these people back into the economy it would more than pay for itself,” Shannon said. “Then they see that there is an economic case to be made for it.

“People are really wedded to some old ways of thinking. They think of water in terms of just hydrology, what water is available, or in political terms: get fresh water and supply it and distribute it. But for most of the world that is not going to work. There is water everywhere; it’s just not clean, so let’s get it in the hands of regular people to clean it up, at every level. If we can do that, then people will gladly solve their own problems.”

Most approaches to water resource management use what Shannon calls “brute force” methods that rely on large infrastructures for projects like moving water over great distances, and that require massive energy use and great expense. The distributed approach looks to local or on-site water systems to provide services like sewage treatment, irrigation, and human contact uses. The concept of distributed water systems is a key aspect of the work of researchers like Shannon who are developing technologies and methods for water reuse, conservation, and treatments inspired by nature.

Making more water available for human uses is the overall theme of the WaterCAMPWS. The Center takes a comprehensive approach to the problem, looking at developing technologies and methods for desalinization, reuse, purification, sensing, decontamination, and disinfection. The Center’s three listed goals are improving the efficiency of desalination methods and reclaiming water through reuse, disinfection of water without producing toxic substances, and decontamination of all types of water sources. In order to match nature’s efficiency at treating water, new technologies such as sensing devices and microreactors for distributive water systems are being developed.

Shannon and his collaborators have created a fluidic chip that uses molecular gate technology he co-developed to “separate, manipulate and analyze minute amounts of specified molecular compounds, such as toxins and proteins, from blood, saliva and natural water.” Shannon and Mechanical Science colleague John Georgiadis have also developed a new method for desalinating water at dramatically lower energy costs, and he and his collaborators are working on the next generation of on-site systems – ones recover the nutrients and that don’t use energy.

“There are a lot of us that work on trying to figure out how we can make these small systems that go could go into apartment buildings or small groups of houses,” Shannon said. “It will reduce the amount of water we consume and it will decrease the amount of water that is discharged into the environment that actually causes pollution, and it will reduce energy and chemical use.”  

Shannon’s work encompasses designing, fabricating, testing and characterizing small scale systems for applications not only in water systems but across a broad range of biotechnology areas. His research involves micro fuel cells, micro sensors, and gas sensors – all of which could lead to applications in industry and government.

A fuel cell Shannon developed with collaborators Richard Masel and Saeed Moghaddam  is on such a small scale that the Guinness Book of World Records contacted him about including it in their next edition as the world’s smallest. Their fuel cell is just 3 millimeters by 3 millimeters, lasts much longer than current batteries, generates power without using any, and doesn’t have the drawbacks associated with larger scale fuel cell technology.  

“Fuel cells are not like batteries,” Shannon said. “They need to be controlled and big fuel cells are mostly control systems. So we figured out ways, without using any energy and in a very small package, to be able to control the output. We tested one the other day where we had to start it from a dead stop and we were able to turn it on and off, on and off, just as rapidly as we wanted. It produced a huge amount of power density, huge energy density, and it followed the load exactly for hours.”

Shannon said that unlike batteries the fuel cell keeps its voltage throughout its life so there is no excess energy wasted, and they could last as long as 10 years. He adds that the group is working on making the device even smaller and more powerful.

“The thing is we’re going down even an order of magnitude smaller, with even higher power densities,” Shannon said. “These things are going to be one millimeter by one millimeter by one millimeter and they are going to crank out tons of power and energy for their size.”

Shannon envisions developing future fuel cells that power, for example, sensors for an implantable drug delivery system that injects patients with insulin at just the right time and with just the right amount.

Shannon also has developed a molecular gate with Bohn, Beckman colleague Jonathan Sweedler, and others that has uses in different technologies. It is used as a sensor for water testing, enabling continuous sampling for toxins like mercury and other compounds in water. The molecular gate is useful for Shannon’s work at the WaterCAMPWS and with the Nano-CEMMS center on campus, where he is an associate director.

“In the nano sense it was really the thing that underpinned everything, that allowed us to do nanomanufacturing,” Shannon said. “One of the things that we are talking about manufacturing are these rare protein molecules and things that have very expensive substrates. We use molecular gates to build molecules because you can control accurately very small amounts of liquid. You’re talking about thousands of molecules.”

Shannon has also developed a micro gas analyzer used for sampling air. It can quickly analyze species in air in very low concentrations. He compared the concept to the ancient method of smelling breath to detect disease before it could otherwise be discovered.

“You can smell what bacteria you may have from its metabolytes that come out,” Shannon said. “It can sense what is in your breath and if you can look at the fingerprint of what’s in the breath you might be able to diagnose more effectively.”

Shannon’s work with water issues has taken him to places like India, Switzerland, China, Netherlands, and Israel on fact-finding missions. He will be going to Africa this summer.

“I hope at the end of whatever efforts we do that we will be able to reuse water much more efficiently and it will be very robust, clean, no pathogens and it will be used for lots of non-potable purposes,” Shannon said of his work. “I hope that we can desalinate water with much less energy, that we can help people around the world disinfect water so we can start saving people.

“Many years back I decided I wanted to focus on things that were going to have high societal need: water, health, security, energy. I decided that water is probably central to all of them.”