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Water for the World

Massoud Pirbazari, a professor at the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, works on a new project to help solve the water crisis
BY: Anna-Catherine Brigida
March 07, 2013 —

Massoud Pirbazari, a veteran USC Viterbi School of Engineering professor and an expert in water purification, is working on a new project with Professor Thio Hogen-Esch and his group at USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute that would help the 1.2 billion people in the world without access to safe drinking water.

Although the earth theoretically contains more than enough water for humans to survive, 97% of the earth’s water is in the ocean and cannot be consumed without the process of desalination. Pirbazari and his team are working on ways to make this water accessible to more people through efficient and economical technologies (this is also listed as one of the NAE Grand Challenges).

“The point is that we don’t have enough water,” Pirbazari said. “It’s getting worse and worse as population increases. Especially with the climate change, there is severe drought in many places.”

Water is a life and death issue. Every year, nearly 3.4 million people die from water-related disease and one child dies from water-related disease every 21 seconds according to the World Health Organization. The water crisis already affects over a billion people. By 2050, the United Nations World Water Development Report estimates it will affect three times as many people due to population growth.

Water particles pass through the membrane removing chemicals

Dr. Pirbazari also works with undergraduate students on various projects directed at providing clean water to those in need all over the world. Kirsten Rice realized the importance of Dr. Pirbazari’s work after taking his Introduction to Environmental Engineering course her freshman year.

“Everybody needs water and there’s not enough of it available,” said Rice. “It’s not only important to find new resources for water, but also to make sure that people have access to water that is clean.”

Viv Pitter, a Viterbi student Merit Research Scholar and recipient of the first prize in the 2011 Provost’s Undergraduate Research Symposium, also got involved with undergraduate research with Dr. Pirbazari after taking his course.

“I think sustainable development is the most important issue of our time,” said Pitter. “I think that being able to provide adequate potable water supplies is the most important things in these rural communities that don’t have clean water.”

Not only do humans need clean drinking water to survive, but water also has other important uses that can also consume large amounts of water. These include agriculture or the manufacturing of products such as steel or paper.

“You cannot produce anything without water,” Pirbazari said. “But, where does it come from? You can’t just use wastewater. You have to purify it and clean it to use it.”

Right now, the process of purifying water entails the use of advanced membrane technologies that remove undesirable components from the water, including salt, chemicals, or toxins.

However, these membranes can clog easily and the damage can be irreparable. One of Pirbazari’s goals is to improve this technology to prevent fouling and clogging. Additionally, Pirbazari and his team hope to find new ways to purify wastewater. The project is still in the early stages although the team hopes to receive additional funding.

Pirbazari’s work has deep roots and passionate beginnings. As a child, Pirbazari witnessed the pain that cancer can cause when his mother suffered from breast cancer. According to the Breast Cancer Fund, there is a link between waterborne and airborne toxins and breast cancer. This influenced him to complete his Ph.D. dissertation on removing toxins from water over 30 years ago.

“Water is the No.1 issue in the world,” Pirbazari said. “Because if we don’t have safe water, we can’t survive.“