Two MIT PhD students receive J-WAFS fellowships for water research

In 2014, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) has been at the forefront of multidisciplinary research focused on addressing critical water and food security issues to satisfy human requirements. As part of its initiatives, J-WAFS introduced the Rasikbhai L. Meswani Water Solutions Fellowship and the J-WAFS Graduate Student Fellowship in 2017. These programs offer assistance to exceptional MIT graduate students engaged in research with the potential to enhance water and food systems globally.

J-WAFS has recently granted the 2024-25 fellowships to Jonathan Bessette and Akash Ball, two MIT PhD candidates committed to combating water scarcity by improving desalination and purification methods. Given the continuous depletion of the world’s freshwater resources due to climate change, with one-third of the global population lacking safe drinking water access, the work of Bessette and Ball is crucial. Their focus is on developing innovative solutions to reinforce the resilience and sustainability of worldwide water systems. To support their work, J-WAFS will provide funding for an academic semester to each recipient for ongoing research and associated endeavors.

Renee J. Robins, the executive director of J-WAFS, commented on this year’s fellowships, stating that both Bessette and Ball shone brightly among a highly competitive group of applicants. Awarding the J-WAFS fellowships to these individuals underscores the organization’s confidence in their ability to introduce transformative approaches to global water challenges.

The Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions is a doctoral fellowship offered to students pursuing water-related research at MIT. Made possible by Elina and Nikhil Meswani and family, this fellowship aims to support research in water supply and related areas.

Jonathan Bessette, a doctoral student in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Center at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering under the guidance of Professor Amos Winter, is focusing on developing water treatment systems for the developing world, particularly desalination processes. The enhancement of brackish groundwater desalination systems is essential for remote and underserved regions lacking reliable centralized power and water infrastructure. Bessette’s research involves creating low-cost, sustainable, renewable-powered desalination technologies tailored for challenging circumstances, such as providing drinking water for isolated communities.

Bessette has devised a battery-free, renewable electrodialysis desalination system that is energy-efficient, water-conserving, and suitable for harsh environments due to its decentralized and sustainable design. This technology outperforms conventional reverse osmosis methods, especially in reducing energy consumption for treating brackish water. Professor Winter commended Bessette’s engineering acumen and the ingenious solution he and engineer Shane Pratt developed to eliminate the need for large batteries in the system. Bessette is dedicated to refining the system’s architecture to enhance its reliability and cost-effectiveness for deployment in remote regions.

Growing up in upstate New York, Bessette earned his bachelor’s degree at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His experiences teaching engineering and sustainability to students in underserved areas of Buffalo, along with his fieldwork in India measuring water contaminants in rural sites during his junior year, solidified his commitment to addressing food, water, and sanitation challenges. In addition to his doctoral research, Bessette is working on a project funded by a J-WAFS India grant that utilizes low-cost, remote sensors to improve water accessibility for families in rural India, partnering with fellow MIT student Gokul Sampath.

The J-WAFS Graduate Student Fellowship is backed by the J-WAFS Research Affiliate Program, which allows companies to collaborate with MIT on water and food research. Current support for the fellowship is provided by two J-WAFS Research Affiliates: Xylem, a top U.S.-based water treatment and infrastructure solutions provider, and GoAigua, a pioneering Spanish company specializing in digital transformation in the water industry through innovative solutions.

Akash Ball, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering under Professor Heather Kulik’s supervision, is researching novel functional materials via computational methods for energy-efficient ion separation membranes with high selectivity. These advanced membranes are vital for applications such as water desalination, battery recycling, and heavy metal removal from industrial wastewater.

Ball emphasized the critical water challenges resulting from climate change, water pollution, and limited freshwater reserves affecting approximately 4 billion people annually, particularly in semiarid regions of India and China. He highlighted seawater desalination as a potential solution, as seawater accounts for 97% of Earth’s water. While commercial reverse osmosis membranes are available, they face challenges like slow permeation, permeability-selectivity trade-offs, and high fabrication costs. Ball’s research on metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) seeks highly selective ion separation with rapid water transport, leveraging features like high surface area, varied pore windows, and customizable chemical functionalities.

In the Kulik research lab, Ball is systematically analyzing how MOF chemistry and pore structure influence water transport and ion rejection rates. By the conclusion of his Ph.D. program, Ball aims to identify top-performing MOFs for water uptake utilizing machine learning models, propose novel MOFs for specific ion separations, and establish design guidelines for next-generation membrane synthesis.

Professor Kulik commended Ball’s innovative research approach and leadership skills, which benefit the entire lab. Before joining MIT, Ball received a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay and a bachelor’s degree from Jadavpur University in India. During a research internship at IIT Bombay, he contributed to the development of a technology for in situ arsenic detection in water, an experience that, along with his upbringing in water-scarce regions of India, shaped his interest in tackling global water challenges.

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