100 Ways: The Planet


Published May 15, 2019 11:06 AM

Stories on ethnic studies, Yang Yang, and clean water studies.

We'll Drink to That

Clean Water Science

Maria Elena Kennedy is the community liaison for UCLA’s Salinas Valley Distributed Water Treatment System Project, which will deliver safe drinking water to three farmworker communities using cutting-edge technology and will help other poor communities access clean drinking water in the future. Kennedy ensures that the residents, many of whom don’t speak English, understand how the project works.

Set in a city made hospitable only through irrigation, UCLA has played an ongoing role in providing the earth’s burgeoning population with clean water. In 1959, graduate students Sidney Loeb M.S. ’59, Ph.D. ’64 and Srinivasa Sourirajan perfected the process that converts salt water to potable water, known as Reverse Osmosis Desalination (RO).

Building on UCLA scientist Gerald Hassler’s earlier experiments, Loeb and Sourirajan invented a device that forced salt water through a finely meshed membrane to filter out sodium chloride. Over the ensuing decades, this enabled drought-afflicted nations in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere to enjoy safe drinking water harvested from the sea.

In 1965, before RO went global, Loeb tested the technology closer to home by implementing the world’s first brackish groundwater desalination plant in Coalinga. The San Joaquin Valley town, disconnected at the time from the California Aqueduct, had previously depended on trains to bring in clean water. Loeb’s methods gave citizens access to 10,000 gallons of clear drinking water every day.

More recently, Water Technology Research Center director Yoram Cohen, who is a Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and also on the faculty in the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, has been leading the charge at UCLA. Navigating between some half a dozen projects-in-progress, Cohen and his colleagues will soon launch three water treatment systems to benefit previously underserved farming communities in the Salinas Valley.

Cohen says, “We’re essentially creating a virtual water district where everybody’s connected via the Internet, with systems being monitored here at UCLA. And if we can solve these problems in California, the technology we develop here can be applied anywhere in the world.”

Meanwhile, the UCLA lab run by Jennifer Jay, Samueli School of Engineering professor of civil and environmental engineering, has helped to develop new ways to evaluate water quality off the beaches of California. Jay’s team is tackling a major public health issue by measuring the presence of “superbugs” in the ocean. Her students take nasal swabs from surfers on the California coastline to learn when and how antibiotic-resistant organisms colonize humans. Jay’s research group also developed a portable testing station that analyzes water contaminants in 30 minutes, down from the 24-hour turnaround time previously required.

Drawing on 10 years of intensive research, Jay and her students now use a DNA-based technique known as microbial source tracking to help secure the safety of everyday swimmers and surfers. “We’re now able to determine the actual source of contamination on beaches by targeting very specific pieces of DNA that indicate where a fecal indicator bacterium likely came from,” she says.

This tracking system enables scientists to distinguish human waste from that of seagulls, poultry, dogs and others. “Once you know where the contamination is coming from,” Jay says, “it helps you fix the problem.”

A Glowing Future

Yang Yang

The Yang Yang laboratory at the Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science is making dreams of sustainability a reality through impossibly small energy devices.

Yang Yang.

If you’ve ever used a cell phone or a TV, the work of UCLA Materials Science and Engineering Professor Yang Yang, a solar cell scientist, has made your digital experiences glow. But his impact is hard to see — Yang Yang’s work takes place at the nano level, far below what’s visible to the naked eye.

Yang and UCLA engineering researcher Jinsong Huang Ph.D. ’07 created an LED device that achieved the highest-ever lumens per watt, using a new combination of plastic-, or polymer-, infused liquid. What does this mean for your phone or TV?

“Visually, it means you get a higher quality display, and the product is lighter and thinner [than its predecessors],” says Huang. “With our improvements, you need less energy, and you get an all-around better product.”

Most of Yang’s recent work focuses on creating sustainable energy through radically thin solar films. Imagine, for example, painting a layer of transparent solar cells onto a window of your home, transforming it into a solar panel. Or painting an existing solar panel so it performs better. This isn’t a sci-fi reverie; it’s a science fact — one that’s getting closer to your shopping cart.

“Our technology boosted the existing CIGS solar cell performance by nearly 20 percent,” Yang says. “That means a 20-percent reduction in energy costs” — while measuring only 2 millimeters thick. Yang believes that these devices could approach 30-percent power conversion efficiency.