Illinois Tech Member of Innovation Engine Awarded Up to $160 Million by NSF


Great Lakes surface with Great Lakes ReNEW organization logo superimposed

Great Lakes ReNEW, a six-state collaboration coordinated by Chicago-based water innovation hub Current, has been awarded up to $160 million over 10 years from the United States National Science Foundation to develop and grow a water-focused innovation engine in the Great Lakes region. Illinois Institute of Technology is a member of ReNEW. 

Current is one of the 10 inaugural NSF Regional Innovation Engines, or NSF Engines. 

With a potential NSF investment of nearly $1.6 billion over the next decade, NSF Engines represent one of the single largest investments in place-based research and economic development in the nation's history—uniquely placing science and technology leadership as the central driver for regional economic competitiveness and job creation. 

The funding will enable ReNEW, which is coordinated by Current in partnership with Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago, to fulfill the NSF’s mission of spurring economic growth in regions that have not fully participated in the technology boom of the past few decades.

In its winning proposal, ReNEW sets out its plan to turn waste into wealth by figuring out how to remove dangerous “forever chemicals”, such as PFAS, and valuable minerals, such as lithium, from our wastewater. The vision is that American manufacturers would then reuse some of these extracted valuable minerals, enabling domestic production of batteries and fertilizers, almost all of which are currently imported. 

“This marks a pivotal moment for water innovation, particularly in addressing the critical challenge of ‘forever chemicals.’ Our work at Illinois Tech not only aims to mitigate the spread of harmful substances like PFAS but also embodies a larger vision,” says Illinois Tech Assistant Professor David Lampert, the university’s lead researcher on the project. “This funding will propel our research into new realms, allowing us to develop scalable solutions that can make a significant impact on water quality and public health. It's about creating a sustainable future where technology and ecology go hand in hand.”

Lampert was recently awarded funding by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) Student Design Competition for a project to stop the spread of “forever chemicals” into waterways—one of just three nationwide selected for phase II funding—and one of just four awards nationwide as part of the  U.S. Geological Service’s Water Resources Research Act Program. Lampert is also part of the multidisciplinary team of Illinois Tech researchers recently awarded a $750,000 Strengthening American Infrastructure grant by NSF to address the critical issue of stormwater infrastructure inequities in Chicago.

ReNEW’s efforts won’t be confined to research labs. The organization also will connect partners across workforce development systems, from community-based organizations to credentialing programs, community colleges, and universities to provide training and careers for individuals most affected by joblessness and systemic barriers to participation.

“The NSF’s substantial investment is a ringing endorsement of the innovative progress Great Lakes ReNEW is poised to make, and Illinois Tech is proud and thrilled to be part of this important milestone. This is more than just an investment in technology; it's an investment in people, communities, and the future of our region's economy,” Illinois Tech Provost Kenneth Christensen says. “This initiative not only addresses critical environmental challenges, but also drives our region’s technological and economic advancement. As the only technology-focused university in Chicago, Illinois Tech is uniquely positioned to advance cutting-edge innovations and foster a skilled workforce to lead the way in sustainable, technology-driven solutions."

“Waste has no place in this world of increasing water and resource scarcity,” said Alaina Harkness, executive director of Current and principal investigator for ReNEW. “Our engine will find new ways to recover and reuse water, energy, nutrients, and critical materials from our water. These innovations will create economic opportunities for residents of our region, help strengthen our domestic supply chain for clean energy technologies, and address water quality and security issues around the world.”

ReNEW was one of 10 groups from across the United States to be chosen as an NSF Engine. It was selected from 16 finalists, 188 invited proposals, and more than 700 initial submissions. 

“We have all the research and commercialization strengths here in the Great Lakes region to become a water innovation superhighway,” said Junhong Chen, co-principal investigator of ReNEW, professor at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago, and lead water strategist at Argonne National Laboratory. “Now we can start building it.”

ReNEW is backed by six Great Lakes states: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Illinois’ support includes $2 million in state funding for the innovation engine.

“The inaugural NSF Engines awards demonstrate our enduring commitment to create opportunity everywhere and enable innovation anywhere," NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said. “Through these NSF Engines, NSF aims to expand the frontiers of technology and innovation and spur economic growth across the nation through unprecedented investments in people and partnerships. NSF Engines hold significant promise to elevate and transform entire geographic regions into world-leading hubs of innovation." 

“The Great Lakes are a vital natural resource for the health, wealth, and security of our entire nation,” Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker said. “That’s why I’m thrilled that Current was selected to receive this federal award that will help transform our Great Lakes region. Thanks to investments like these, our top-tier workforce, and our industrial resources, we’re leading the clean water and energy revolution.”

“I'm so proud of the region for this win,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said. “This is a win not just for clean water and climate globally, but also a win for regional cooperation locally.” 

“This engine will be anchored in Chicago, which is becoming a national epicenter for clean water innovation,” Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said. “I want to congratulate Current, the University of Chicago, and Argonne National Laboratory for their ambition and ingenuity, which is going to create an untold number of jobs right here throughout the lifecycle of this grant.” 

ReNEW is made up of more than 50 partners that span research institutions, industry, investors, government and nonprofit organizations with a shared goal of developing and commercializing better “selective separation” technologies. 

The NSF Regional Innovation Engine award builds on Upstream Illinois, a strategic plan developed with support from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration and released by Current and its partners in 2023, which is the nation’s first roadmap to inclusive growth and innovation in the Blue Economy. 

Disclaimer: The grant award number is 2315268. The partnering organizations that make up ReNEW to date include: AmFam Institute * AO Smith * Argonne National Laboratory * Black & Veatch * Burnt Island Ventures * CAEL * Cara Collective * Chicago State University * City Colleges of Chicago * Cleveland Water Alliance * Discovery Partners Institute * Dow * Entrepreneurs’ Center * Evergreen Climate Innovations * Exelon * Freshwater Advisors * Fund for Our Economic Future * HIRE360 * Illinois Institute of Technology * Illinois Science & Technology Coalition * Illinois Ventures * Imagine H2O * Marquette University * Mazarine Ventures * Metropolitan Council * Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago * mHUB * National Fund for Workforce Solutions * New Water * Northwestern University * NSF I-Corps Hub Great Lakes Region * Ohio State University * Oldcastle * P33 * Purdue University *  S2G Ventures * Sentry * State of Illinois * State of Ohio * State of Wisconsin * TIES * True North Venture Partners * University of Chicago * University of Cincinnati * University of Illinois Chicago * University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign * University of Michigan * University of Minnesota * University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee * Wayne State University * Whirlpool *  World Business Chicago * WRTP Big Step