🌊 Water Tech Week: Innovators discuss what's causing rough waters

Good Thursday afternoon! Sometimes water innovation develops smoothly and sails through the pipeline. Other times you hit a dam, so to speak. For Day 4 of Water Tech Week on Centered, industry participants give insights on some of the long-term barriers and daily challenges to developing water innovations. But first, today’s tech headlines…

🌱 AGRICULTURE: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will house a new national artificial intelligence research center dedicated to developing the “farm of the future.” Reducing farming’s environmental impact is one of the focal areas. Researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the University of Chicago, Michigan State University, and Argonne National Laboratory also will be part of the five-year, $20 million collaboration that received the grant from the National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes.

💰 FUNDING: The Minnesota Department of Agriculture opened a funding opportunity for innovative farming projects that explore sustainable ag technologies and practices. Applications are due Dec. 10.

***SPONSORED LINK: Minnesota heating tech startup 2040 Energy wants your opinion. Click here to take our survey and help shape the future of clean energy heating!***

☢️ NUCLEAR: Some researchers at the University of Illinois want to bring new technology — a micronuclear reactor — to campus that would heat buildings while reducing fossil fuel dependence, reports The News-Gazette.

🔬 RESEARCH: Engineers at Purdue University developed a printing process that turns any piece of paper or cardboard into an electronics keypad. The device would be self-powered from contact with the user and therefore would not need a battery.

Technology from Purdue transforms ordinary paper into an electronic keypad. Photo provided by Purdue University.

Now, back to water…

Technology development always has challenges, and water technology is no different. The sector shares some of the same difficulties as other tech fields, but it also has some unique barriers. One: water has been a sleeper and underappreciated field for decades. Even now as attention to water contamination, sustainability, and access is growing, water tech is not as trendy as electric vehicles or fuel cells, for example.

  • “Despite the fact that water is essential to all life and a defining feature of our landscape, it is still very under the radar. We take it for granted,” said Alaina Harkness, CEO of Chicago nonprofit water innovation hub Current.

  • “When you talk about innovation and technology, a lot of people don't think of water as being part of that. You turn on the faucet and water is there. But there's a lot involved in getting to that point,” said Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of Milwaukee-based water economic development nonprofit The Water Council.

Similarly, new disciplines are emerging within water tech and entrepreneurs in those areas are working to get a foothold and write their own playbook.

  • “One of the key challenges in this industry is that it's so new,” said Hannah Grooms, senior project manager at Chicago-based green stormwater infrastructure developer Greenprint Partners. “It is becoming more and more popular across different cities in America, but it’s still in its infancy how we manage stormwater in the United States. That has challenges because things are being figured out as we go along.”

And don’t forget the huge amount of regulatory measures governing water.

  • “In the water space, the whole regulatory environment takes longer to navigate. Sometimes entrepreneurs and innovators get frustrated that it’s moving so slowly,” Amhaus said.

Another unique challenge is that a lot of tech industry work right now focuses on intangible outputs such as coding or software development. But water technologies — advanced sensors and filters, for example — are tangible products, which has implications during and after development.

  • “It takes a long time to test and develop hard tech. There are lots of exciting solutions to better manage water assets, but they have long development and commercialization cycles,” Harkness said.

  • “Another key challenge in general is maintenance. If it's going to work effectively it has to be properly maintained its entire life,” Grooms said.

Advanced sensor use has boomed in the water sector over the past decade, but technological systems based on these high-tech data-gathering devices need to keep up.

  • “A big drawback is if you’re not able to adequately handle all the data that's being collected,” said Greg Cutrell, environmental scientist at LimnoTech, which has deployed high-tech, sensor-laden buoys into the Great Lakes for water quality monitoring. “The more stations you add, the more data you get. The question is, how do you make all the data useful and purposeful? That's probably the biggest issue with expanding water quality monitoring into the IoT world.” 

Yesterday’s post noted how more collaboration is occurring on water innovation projects among diverse stakeholders and across industry sectors. While that’s a boon in some regards, it can also be detrimental to swift, efficient progress.

Tomorrow, for the final day of Water Tech Week, I’ll give you a peek at what the experts predict will happen in the coming years with water technologies.


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