Developing sustainable tech to deal with a growing global water crisis

14 Jun 2022

Image: Dr Joseph Mooney

Dr Joseph Mooney explains how he went from the swimming pool to tackling water scarcity, and how social media could be used to bring science to young people.

Working with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Limerick (UL), Dr Joseph Mooney is testing the boundaries of carbon-free solar-water desalination technologies to make them a competitive candidate for the future of freshwater production.

He completed his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at UL in 2018 and then continued on to a PhD. During this time, he worked with Science Foundation Ireland’s Connect research centre and Nokia Bell Labs, trying to improve the thermal efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint of 5G wireless infrastructure.

His first postdoctoral position was at Trinity College Dublin as a thermal researcher on an industrial project with Huawei. There, he furthered his research experience in experimental and theoretical heat and mass transfer.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, while writing his PhD thesis, he applied for a Marie Sklodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellowship on clean water with UL and MIT. In March, he was awarded this three-year fellowship.

‘Everyone should have access to clean water – achieving this is my career aspiration’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

Clean freshwater is an essential ingredient for a healthy human life. Solar-water desalination represents one of the most promising low-cost, green and sustainable solutions to the pressing global challenges of clean water shortages and is vital for off-grid and remote island regions at risk of severe drought.

Improving solar desalination technologies to the point where they can produce enough water at a price that is competitive with conventional tap water would create an equal playing field for all. Everyone should have access to clean water – achieving this is my career aspiration.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

My research has the potential to demonstrate a carbon-free desalination unit that utilises the two most abundant resources on Earth: solar energy and water. There are two vital areas that I hope my project will significantly impact.

Firstly, a new sustainable technology would help to preserve our already depleted extractable natural freshwater resources that account for approximately 1pc of the total water on the planet. If immediate actions are not taken, half of the world’s population could be living in areas facing water scarcity by 2025.

In addition, inadequate sanitation and access to clean water – a problem for 2.4bn people – can lead to deadly diarrheal diseases, including cholera and typhoid fever. My project hopes to address the societal need of decreasing avoidable mortality by providing clean, disease-free water to regions experiencing drought and inadequate sanitation.

Secondly, although water scarcity is considered a genderless crisis that could affect the entire human race, women and girls around the globe spend an estimated 200m hours hauling water every day, while men and boys get the opportunity to work and go to school.

Moreover, the provision of fresh desalinated water is centralised to countries with large electrical and resource-based infrastructures, making state-of-the-art technologies inaccessible to developing countries and forcing women and girls to walk kilometres every day to haul litres of water.

I hope that the outcomes of my project will benefit all genders and countries worldwide by providing a cheap, sustainable solution that can be easily deployed in developing countries.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

For me there was no one moment that sparked it all, I just gradually fell in love with research. I initially moved to Limerick to pursue a career in sport – swimming was the only thing I wanted to do.

However, during my undergraduate degree, I became interested in how things work and how I could make a positive difference in the world. I became more motivated to study pivotal engineering problems rather than competing in the pool.

During my PhD, I started achieving things like building a functioning experiment, realising novelties in my research, publishing a journal or winning academic competitions. I was happier in my life as a researcher than as an athlete.

A year into my PhD, I made the decision to reduce my swimming commitments and fully engross myself in my new life as a researcher. Since then, I have never looked back. Being a researcher is so exciting! You never know what’s around the corner, who you will meet along the way and, what you will discover when you put your mind to a problem.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

In terms of water scarcity, there are many misconceptions around the availability of this resource. People assume that our world is flush with water, but in fact less than 2.5pc of that is fresh. The volume of water available for consumption (ie drinking, showering, etc) is roughly 0.0008pc of the water on Earth, and it’s rapidly decreasing!

In terms of research as a whole, I feel that outreach to the non-academic community is a significant challenge. We have our journal publications, conferences and industrial collaborations, but there is still a weak link between research and the general public, in particular the youth.

We need to engage more with the youth, inspire them to be researchers and make them realise that researchers are cool too! You don’t have to be born an academic and or be the top of the class to pursue a career in research. I was an average student. Yet my passions got me to where I am today, my ability to communicate and collaborate with others led to my greatest achievements.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years? How do you encourage engagement with your own work?

Public engagement has definitely changed in recent years. The Covid-19 pandemic forced us into a virtual world and throughout my PhD I didn’t get the chance to attend in-person conferences. I hope in the near future that we can return to normal. Networking is so important to us researchers – face-to-face meetings open up opportunities to collaborate on pivotal research projects, talk to stakeholders, and much more.

I would like to see researchers engage more on social platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn. It would be great to see more posts, Reels, TikToks and tweets about people’s research.

The review process for journal publications can be lengthy. It may reach its academic audience well after the work was conducted. But how exciting would it be if we could gain the interest of the non-academic sector through Instagram Reels! It might inspire more people to attend research events, or even help the youth understand and partake in research-related activities.

During my project I hope to do just that. I will try my best to use social platforms to keep everyone up to date on my research, water-related issues and how we can reduce our impact on climate change.

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