NREL Team Wins 2023 Cooperative Research Award in Polymer Science and Engineering

Materials Science Team Deemed "Clear Winner" for Work in Water Sustainability Technologies

Jan. 10, 2023 | By Ryan Horns | Contact media relations

Headshot photographs of a woman on the left and a man on the right.
NREL senior scientists Mou Paul (left) and Abhishek Roy (right) won the American Chemical Society’s 2023 Polymer Science and Engineering Cooperative Research Award for advancements in global water purification. Photos from Mou Paul and Abhishek Roy, NREL

National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Materials Scientists Mou Paul and Abhishek Roy won the 2023 Polymer Science and Engineering (PMSE) Cooperative Research Award for their work in global water sustainability.

PMSE is a division of the American Chemical Society (ACS). The award recognizes the collective polymer advancements of industrial, academic, and national laboratory scientists.

At NREL, Paul and Roy research solutions for global sustainability challenges.

"This award recognizes our work on the fundamental understanding of the reverse-osmosis membrane-structure property," Paul said. "This property plays a key role in wastewater treatment units, as the membranes are used to remove salts and other pollutants."

PMSE Cooperative Research Award Committee Chair Howard Creel said that five judges deemed the team "the clear winner."

As one of the judges noted, the team's research is an "excellent example of collaborative work that elucidated previously not understood aspects of the structure of polymer thin films/membranes. The impact of the produced publications highlights the breadth and depth of the discoveries stemming from this collaboration."

Mou Paul and Abhishek Roy were part of this award-winning team, which involved Pennsylvania State University, Iowa State University, Dupont Water Solutions, the Dow Chemical Company, and the University of Texas at Austin. The team's efforts helped unravel the details of the structure and function of reverse osmosis membranes.

"Their research covered key innovations in X-ray scattering and transmission electron microscopy of reverse osmosis membranes that are the backbone of converting seawater into drinkable water for human consumption," according to the ACS award announcement. "This team has identified new directions for understanding material performance and built the knowledge base for developing next-generation water purification technologies."

Details of their collaborative work were also highlighted in the cover story of the Jan. 1, 2021, issue of Science, which explains how nearly 80% of worldwide fresh water is used for agriculture, livestock, and energy applications. This places substantial stress on existing global water sources. Technologies such as membrane filtration, distillation, and ion exchange help purify water; nonetheless, the energy required to remove salt from water remains high.

Paul and Roy are senior staff scientists in the NREL Chemistry and Nanoscience Center. Roy's research focuses on developing membranes for clean energy technology. Paul's research involves synthesizing polymers for fuel cells/electrolyzers, carbon capture, transportation, and infrastructure as well as developing more efficient water purification membranes.

Paul is also the recipient of two prestigious awards—the 2021 Industrial and Engineering Chemistry (I&EC) Division Fellow Award and the 2021 American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Industrial Progress Award.

In 2016, Roy received the prestigious Gordon E. Moore medal for developing energy efficient water purification membranes that reduced the energy requirement for brackish water reverse osmosis membrane by 30%. He was also selected as a member of the 2018 New Voices cohort by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The PMSE Cooperative Research Award will be given out at the ACS national conference in March 2023, where the team will receive a $5,000 cash prize and a plaque and will give a 30-minute presentation on their research.

Learn more about the ACS PMSE Cooperative Research Award and NREL's Chemistry and Nanoscience research.