A Note from the Director

A Note from the Director

Abdul Latif Jameel

MIT is a place where faculty research is motivated by big problems to be solved, more than just an attachment to any specific discipline. Often the opportunity to create a dialog around these problems, and attract funding, is what stimulates innovative breakthroughs and impactful outcomes.

In my own case, a number of years ago I looked closely at looming worldwide challenges of water supply, and I saw a problem that was urgent and that, with rising population and growing demand, would only get worse over time. Our renewable supply of fresh water is precipitation over land, and despite some regional increases due to climate change, the total amount of fresh water available globally for drinking, irrigation, and industry is generally stable, while population is surging and demand – particularly from agriculture – is growing. Widespread scarcity is the result, compounded by a lack of drought resilience – this on a planet that is covered with salt water. As I thought about this problem, and whether salt water could be converted to fresh water to solve it, I saw that my technical background in thermodynamics was directly applicable to the major technical barrier to desalination, which is its energy consumption. I decided to shift all of my research effort to water purification, and my group has focused on it ever since.

The impact has been considerable, in terms of new technology developed, research, awards, and so on, as well as significant human capacity developed, as evidenced by a number of major international collaborations and dozens of graduate students who have gone on to careers in the water sector, in start-ups, academic positions, and business leadership. At MIT, I created a graduate subject in desalination to underpin these efforts. Our work has been applied not just to urban water supply, but to remediation of water from oil and gas production and wastewater from small textile and papers mills in India.

I relate all of this to illustrate a key proposition: by putting challenging problems and research support in the hands of MIT faculty, we can move their efforts into critical areas. This is the core concept behind J-WAFS: to stimulate, coordinate, and accelerate research in water and food across MIT, and to bring that impact to the world.

J-WAFS was formed in the fall of 2014. Since then, we have held three rounds of competitive research funding on campus for seed grants and commercialization grants around water and food, and brought additional endowed and expendable resources to MIT for research and student support. Through these varied initiatives, we will have distributed over $6 million to the MIT community through the next fiscal year, FY18, and we continue to work towards growing these activities. Our work involves all five schools and engages students and researchers in 19 MIT departments, labs, and centers, and many of our funded projects are cross-disciplinary. We aim to increase MIT’s impact over the next decade, expanding J-WAFS’ geographic footprint, growing our research portfolio, and developing new partnerships around the world. Whether as a collaborator or a supporter, we look forward to working with you to ensure a future in which global needs for clean water and safe food are met and the environmental impact of our water and food systems is greatly reduced.

John H. Lienhard V, PhD, PE
Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water
Director, J-WAFS