Water Innovation: Turning Waste into Health and Wealth - City Club of Chicago

Water Innovation: Turning Waste into Health and Wealth

moderated by Michael Hawthorne of the Chicago Tribune.
Alaina Harkness (Executive Director of Current and CEO and principal investigator (PI) of Great Lakes ReNEW) and Junhong Chen (Crown Family Professor of Molecular Engineering in the UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and Lead Water Strategist at Argonne National Laboratory)

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

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Alaina Harkness

Alaina Harkness is the Executive Director of Current, a Chicago-based water innovation hub, and the CEO for Great Lakes ReNEW, a National Science Foundation Regional Innovation Engine focused on resource recovery and the circular blue economy. Under her tenure, Current has attracted over $30M in federal and state investments for water innovation and economic development, launched the first ever real-time water quality monitoring platform in a US urban waterway (Chicago and Calumet Rivers), and supported the commercialization of more than a dozen water startups. 

Prior to Current, Alaina held impactful roles at economic development firm RW Ventures, the Brookings Institution, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Chicago Community Trust. She has published research for the Brookings Institution, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Crain’s Chicago Business, the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, and CityLab. She holds a B.A. in political science and art history from the University of Rochester, and masters degrees in Public Policy and Latin American Studies from the University of Chicago. Alaina currently serves on the Illinois Workforce Investment Board and the board of Urban Initiatives.

Junhong Chen

Junhong Chen is currently a Crown Family Professor of Molecular Engineering at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and lead water strategist at Argonne National Laboratory.

Prior to coming to Chicago, Prof. Chen served as a program director for the Engineering Research Centers (ERC) program of the US National Science Foundation (NSF).  He also served as a co-chair of the NSF-wide ERC Working Group to design the ERC Planning Grants program and the Gen-4 ERC program.  In addition, Chen was a representative from the Engineering Directorate serving on the NSF-wide Working Groups for NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) and NSF Research Traineeship (NRT). 

Prior to joining NSF in May 2017, he was a regent scholar of the University of Wisconsin System, a Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering and an Excellence in Engineering Faculty Fellow in Nanotechnology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). He served as the director of NSF Industry-University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) on Water Equipment & Policy (WEP) for six years.  He founded NanoAffix Science LLC to commercialize real-time water sensors based on 2D nanomaterials. 

Chen received his PhD in mechanical engineering from University of Minnesota in 2002 and was a postdoctoral scholar in chemical engineering at California Institute of Technology from 2002 to 2003.  Chen is an elected fellow of National Academy of Inventors and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). He is a recipient of the International Association of Advanced Materials (IAAM) Medal.  His start-up company, NanoAffix, is a recipient of the 2016 Wisconsin Innovation Award.

Michael Hawthorne

Michael Hawthorne is a Pulitzer-finalist investigative reporter who focuses on the environment and public health for the Chicago Tribune. He has written extensively about the Great Lakes and Chicago River, the dangers of toxic chemicals in household products and the lingering hazards of brain-damaging lead in homes and drinking water. Hawthorne covered state government and the environment for newspapers in Florida, Illinois and Ohio before joining the Tribune in 2004.

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