The End of Water as We Know It: An Interview with Seth Darling

By Madeline McCann

May 18th, 2016

On May 18, 2016, Dr. Seth Darling, a scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, visited International House for the Argonne Outloud lecture series. Dr. Darling’s current research blends chemistry, physics, materials science, and nanoscience to create and study materials that produce clean energy and safe drinking water.  He currently serves as Argonne’s Solar Energy Systems strategy leader, and has developed new models of the economics and life cycle assessment of solar energy.  His recent studies have focused on the design of next-generation solar energy devices, and new technologies for water purification.

Dr. Darling’s May 18th lecture, entitled “The End of Water as We Know It,” focused on the end of easily available freshwater and how we can respond to this change. This talk was co-sponsored by the Global Voices Lecture Series, Argonne National Laboratory, and the Office of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories. Before the event, Global Voices interviewer Madeline McCann sat down with Dr. Darling to discuss his research. Their discussion has also been featured in the Gate, the partner student publication of the Global Voices Interview Series.  Here’s what he had to say:

Global Voices: You're here tonight to talk about the changing water landscape, our changing relationship with water, and all the work Argonne is doing to create innovative water treatment systems. But you've also done a lot of other environmental work. How did you get interested in this kind of environmental research?

Dr. Seth Darling: Back in my graduate research days, I was focused on fundamental science with no obvious application anywhere; it was all curiosity-driven, basic science work. Then I moved to Argonne National Laboratory to start a post-doctoral research employment, and shortly into that post-doc I saw a talk by a professor from So-Cal Tech, Nate Lewis, who has a talk—people in the field know "The Talk" that Nate Lewis gives—about climate change, and solar energy as a possible solution. I walked out of that lecture as a young post-doc basically saying, “I need to do something to help solve this problem.”

My son was born around the same time, and that makes you think about the future and the next generation more than you would otherwise. I knew nothing about solar energy, I knew what your typical guy on the street might know. And so it took a while to train myself to start working in that area, but I actually started to do research in that area and continue to do so today - over the past more than ten years I've been doing that. To me the biggest challenge we face is climate change, and solar energy connects directly to that.

A very close second on the list of major societal challenges we face over the coming decades is water. And they're not unrelated either. Energy and water are connected in many different ways. And so I just became more and more interested in it. Here's another huge challenge that needs some technological innovation to help solve the problem. How can we do that? I'm still in the process of teaching myself more about it, while at the same time trying to contribute to the research.

Global Voices: Is there a relationship between climate change and the water crisis that you're talking about tonight?

Darling: Yes, in many ways there is—I mean, climate change affects everything. Just to give a few examples—our precipitation patterns are changing dramatically because of our climate being disrupted, so we have more flooding, as well as more droughts. The drought in California is a good example. The drought in the Middle East is the region’s worst in 900 years. That is pretty clearly being influenced by the changing climate, so that's one way that water and climate connect.

Another would be sea level rise, of course. The climate warms up, the seas rise, the seas are made of water—so there's another connection. And there are countless other examples. Those are just a few.

Global Voices: You wrote a book to dispel myths about climate change, in which the main idea is to "let the science do the talking." For people like me that can be tough, because I don't really know the science in-depth. What are the most common things that you encounter as far as climate change skepticism?

Darling: There's quite a broad spectrum of what I'll call "myths" out there about climate change, ranging from very good-natured folks who are just a little misinformed all the way to conspiracy theorists and ideologues who, even when presented with scientific information, are not going to change their minds. And so the types of myths you see range from, “climate change is natural, the earth has always gone through changes in its climate, this has nothing to do with us,” to, “climate change is a good thing.” Another myth you see is that doing something about it by moving away from fossil fuels will kill jobs and hurt the economy. In that book, we went through probably 20 different of these big myths, and just tried to lay out the facts in very simple terms so you don't need to be a scientist - no equations, no graphs, just simple explanations. Because while climate change is very complex when you dig into it, the basics are very simple. And there's just gross misunderstanding of the basics. It’s becoming so politicized, and there's so much misinformation out there, some of it intentional, that it’s just become very confusing. You keep hearing conflicting information, and it’s very difficult as a non-scientist, sometimes even as a scientist, to perceive which of the sources can be trusted.

Global Voices: Is there anything that has been particularly difficult to refute?

Darling: The people I've yet to come up with any way to sway at all are the conspiracy theorists. Those who think that all the climate scientists are just making up the science so the federal government will give them more money to do their research. They think it's some grand conspiracy and they're faking the data, and all this other kind of stuff, and it's just so far out there. How do you argue against that? It's just not true, but how do you demonstrate that a conspiracy is not true?

Global Voices: Yeah, we had former Congressman Bob Inglis come recently to discuss that challenge. Have you heard of the movie Merchants of Doubt?

Darling: Yeah, it's a great movie, based on a book, too.

Global Voices: With all those people spreading misinformation, it’s got to be hard.

Darling: Yeah, there are a lot of resources invested in the status quo, and in us continuing to use fossil fuels. And they've hired a lot of the same people—if you saw that movie, you know that the people who engineered the tobacco industry's propaganda for many years are literally the same people who are now trying to put out misinformation about our climate.

Global Voices: Going back to water, during tonight’s event you'll talk about water conflict and how that has the potential to shape the 21st century. Have we already seen that manifest itself anywhere?

Darling: Absolutely, and not just now. There's been water conflict in human civilization for many years. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt would fight wars against the civilization in what's now Kenya and Ethiopia, where the headwaters of the Nile are, because they knew they needed to control that water. That's how they consolidated their power, by controlling the Nile River. So since the dawn of civilization, there's been water conflict, but we're seeing more of it now. Just a few examples are the Aral Sea in Central Asia, which is drying up, and many of the countries in Central Asia are now feuding over the limited water resources that are left. The Ferghana Valley was one of the more fertile areas in the world, and is now much less so because of the lack of water from the Aral Sea, so that's feeding the inter-state conflict. There's also intra-state conflict in places like India. There's conflict between countries, like Bolivia and Chile over the Silala River that flows from Bolivia into Chile. Chile needs that water for mining in the Atacama Desert, which is one of the driest places on earth but the water comes from Bolivia. They need the water too, so who has the rights to that water? With Israel and Palestine, a lot of people don't realize that a big part of the conflict is actually based on water and limited water resources. So it's popping up all over the world and will do so much more frequently going forward.

Global Voices: Are there certain places you see advancing more research about water because of these issues? I've heard Israel is a leader.

Darling: That's absolutely right. Israel has had some wonderful water research programs for quite a while now. For obvious reasons they're motivated to do so. Desalination in particular is a great strength there. The University of Chicago, through the Institute for Molecular Engineering, has a partnership with Ben-Gurion University in Israel to tackle water problems through research. So yeah, there's great strength in places like Israel. Australia also has strong research, as does Singapore. There's a number of little bubbles of strength in water research, but generally speaking I think it’s a vastly underserved area of research. Take solar, my other major area of research. You can go to any major research university anywhere in the world, and you're going to find at least one person doing solar energy research, probably five or even ten in some schools. Water is a very different story, it's rare to find people who are researching it, especially technology or material science related research.

Global Voices: Because it seems so...?

Darling: I don't know that I have a good answer for why that's the case now, but it needs to change, because it is as big a problem as energy and there's just not enough people tackling it.

Global Voices: I'm curious what kind of challenges are we facing in solar energy. What is holding us back from using more solar energy?

Darling: There's nothing scientifically that's holding us back from using solar today. It's the market, and the fact that the market is not working properly because all of the costs associated with different energy sources are not well represented in the market. When you're burning coal to make electricity, you pay the electricity company for that electricity, but you're actually paying more. You're paying to treat the people who have asthma attacks and heart attacks, you're paying to build thicker roads to accommodate heavy coal trucks, you're paying for droughts causing food prices to go up because of climate change—there are countless examples of hidden costs. The market doesn't see those costs and so it doesn't make the right energy decisions, so that's one of the big issues today.

But let's say suddenly the world all caught on to the fact that we need to change this now, and just wanted to start building solar as fast as we could. The technologies that we have today for solar panels have many great attributes. For example, silicon, which is the main material used for solar panels, is abundant, and the efficiency of those panels is high, so that's all great. The problem with them is that to make silicon solar panels you have to invest energy, because you need very pure, crystalline silicon, and that takes energy to make. And it takes a while to get back that energy once you plug it in and it starts giving you electricity. And the time it takes to give you back that energy is too long. That will limit how quickly we can scale up the manufacturing of those types of solar panels. We're nowhere near those limits today, because we're not trying to manufacture that much, but once everyone catches on and we try, then we're going to start running into those limits, and then we'll need more technologies.

Global Voices: Right, that makes sense. Speaking of new technologies, you're also working with Argonne and the IME to create new forms of water treatment. What does that look like? What sorts of things are you doing?

Darling: There are multiple answers to that question. There's my own group, there's IME and Argonne, which have a much much larger program than my own group, and then there's the broader research community. The broader you go the bigger the scope and range of the types of research you see. To start on the lowest level with my own group, we're doing things like trying to develop membranes that can effectively filter out pathogens and viruses. Turns out that the only membranes that can do that effectively enough today are essentially non-porous, which means that you have to apply massive pressures to push the water through, and massive pressures translate to massive energy. And so we are trying to develop membranes which have pores that are all exactly the same size, and are just a little bit smaller than those pathogens you're trying to filter out. That  will effectively remove them, but you'll be able to apply much much less pressure to get your water to go through. So that's one project.

Another project is developing membranes that clean themselves. A big challenge in water treatment with membranes is that they get what’s called “fouled.” They grow biofilms on them over time, and proteins and bacteria and other things just start to grow on the membrane. That plugs up all the holes and then they don't work them anymore so you have to replace them or clean them. Huge problem in the industry. We're trying to develop membranes that, when they're exposed to light, even sunlight, will degrade those films as they start to grow. So basically self-cleaning membranes. That's sort of looking at the water treatment side.

We're also developing pollution remediation technologies to do things like clean up oil spills. We have a project funded by the US Coast Guard that is trying to clean up marine oil spills with a new technology that we're developing the materials for.

Global Voices: Now that you're partnered with the IME, is there more that you're able to do at Argonne?

Darling: Yeah, so the IME is actually a joint institute between the University and Argonne, so it's not like the IME is at the University of Chicago. The IME is a bridge between those two research institutions. There are people who are faculty at the University of Chicago and staff at Argonne, and there are people like myself who staff at Argonne and have just a fellow appointment at the University and the IME. So there are many ways in which we're starting to work together. The University of Chicago has operated Argonne since it was founded in 1946. It's actually the oldest national laboratory in the United States, maybe even in the world. And yet the research connections have been kind of sporadic between the two organizations despite the fact that it’s been, what, 70 years? There are a few counter examples, but generally speaking it's not been as tightly integrated as you'd think it should be. And the IME, I think, is just a beautiful example of how to really push that forward because it's a vibrant, truly collaborative organization between the two research institutions.

Global Voices: What kinds of things can we expect to see coming from Argonne and the IME?

Darling: I don't speak for the IME, but in water I think you're going to see some exciting developments going forward. There's the kind of projects I explained that my group is doing, but there are also exciting projects in things like groundwater dating. There are these aquifers under the ground, and nobody knows how long that water has been down there in many cases. Some of it can get replenished quickly, but sometimes there's no more water coming into the aquifer, and how do you know that? How do you know how old the water is?

You've probably heard of carbon dating, which is used in some other fields. You can't carbon date water, because it's older than that. Carbon dating is only good for the span of human civilization. Water's been there for hundreds of thousands of years, and, carbon dating won't work for that. And so there are researchers at Argonne, Ben-Gurion, and the University of Chicago who are partnering on a new technique using radio-krypton dating. They've gone to Israel and dated a whole bunch of aquifers, and can say, “This one's 600,000 years old and that one's 400,000 years old.” That’s very different from the type of work I was explaining earlier. And there are plenty of other examples, so I think you're going to start hearing more and more about some of these cool innovations.