When you turn on your kitchen faucet, do you know where your water comes from? Kerry Howe does, and he can tell you where it was before it got there and where it goes after disappearing down your drain. He is the director of the UNM Center for Water and the Environment, a professor in environmental engineering, and this year’s recipient of the UNM Annual Research Lecture award. He delivered his lecture virtually from his home recently to colleagues and guests, facilitated by Vice President for Research Gabriel López, Dean of Graduate Studies Julie Coonrod, and Provost James Holloway.

“Kerry is one of the most unassuming, humble guys I know,” said Coonrod in her introduction, comparing Howe to a superhero in disguise. “He’s very ordinary looking, but he’s out saving the world, keeping our water safe to use and drink.”

During his lecture, Howe focused on the importance of water to our lives and the problems posed by dwindling supplies propelled by climate change. With a drive to recruit a new and diverse generation of scientists, the Center for Water and the Environment began with a focus on mountain watersheds and supply, then quickly expanded to include interactions between water and energy, as well as water quality and treatment technologies.

ARL Sculpture
This year’s ARL award sculpture.

The latter is where Howe’s expertise lies, but he also emphasized the collaborative nature of this work and the importance of working with experts in multiple fields. This is why he’s excited to be a part of President Stokes’ Grand Challenges initiative in the Sustainable Water Resources program.

“This will bring people together from Biology, Geography, the Law School, and Engineering,” Howe said, to work on water-related issues and collaborate to get larger grants in order to solve bigger problems.

Howe walked the audience through the history of water quality, beginning in the mid 1800s with John Snow and his discovery of the connection between water and cholera outbreaks to the 20th century addition and subsequent removal of chlorine in the water supply, eventually coming to the modern urban water cycle.

Howe briefly discussed how our water comes from a source (the river) and is sent to a water treatment plant to prepare it for consumption by the community. Remember the water coming out of your kitchen faucet? That water has been treated for contaminants from the environment or from upstream users. After the water we use is drained or flushed, it heads to a wastewater reclamation plant. Once there, the water is treated again, but this time it’s treated to be safe for the environment, not for human consumption.

This process presents several challenges in the face of water scarcity in the agricultural areas of the Midwest, Texas, and the Southwest. If you live downstream, your water is being used by communities upstream, meaning you have to re-treat your already dwindling supply of water before using it.

In Albuquerque, we have a higher water supply in the winter than we do in the summer. Howe asks—why not recycle our wastewater directly for reuse? What if we could take the excess winter wastewater, treat it for drinking, then put it back into our aquifer rather than the river, storing it for future use?

Howe described two projects working towards answering these questions. The first examined removal of contaminants in wastewater through biofiltration—adding ozone to break down the contaminants. Driving home the importance of research on the expansion of knowledge, Howe described that although the results did not show improvement over traditional methods, their findings will be beneficial to other projects in this area. 

The second project examined one of the main traditional water treatment methods: reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis uses semi-permeable membranes as filters to remove molecules and compounds that are dangerous to drink. Emphasizing the need for engineers to employ basic science to understand the functioning of engineered systems, Howe dove into the chemistry behind these tests to shine a light on his process. There isn’t a lot of research data explaining exactly how different membranes work or what can affect their performance, and Howe and his team want to change that in order to move the field forward. His approach looks at the functional chemistry of certain molecules to see if small differences in molecular structure affect whether or not they are captured by the membrane.

Their findings for this project determined that functional chemistry of a compound has a significant impact on membrane capture rates:

  • The bigger the molecular compound, the more likely it will be captured by the membrane, a confirmation of current knowledge;
  • Molecules in the halogen group (chlorine, bromine, etc.) escape capture more often then methyl groups (CH3 compounds);
  • Branched hydrocarbons, where the molecular chain looks like a branch, are captured by a membrane at a higher rate than linear compounds; and
  • Double bonds decrease capture rates.

The team also found that boron can help predict capture rates of certain organics by different kinds of membranes, which can help inform membrane manufacturers of the importance of including boron on manufacture specification sheets.

Wrapping back around to the beginning of his talk, Howe concluded by repeating the importance of the safety of our water and the importance of adding to and expanding our current knowledge of water treatment in order to come up with innovative solutions for our future.

“Water quality is a complex issue imperative to our future,” said López as he closed the evening. “But as we’ve heard from Kerry tonight, innovative solutions and innovative scientists will help us face the unique challenges coming our way.”

Howe thanked his sponsors, students, and colleagues before wrapping up with thanks to his wife, Elaine (also a water treatment engineer), his children, and his parents for their support.

“I am deeply honored to have received the 65th Annual Research Lecture award,” he said in a statement. “I’ve always tried to conduct research that advances the field of water treatment, provides good education for students, and benefits society, and to be recognized by UNM with such a prestigious award is the icing on the cake.”

For more information and a list of past winners, visit Annual Research Lecture.