Andrew Jones III: Expanding Access to Safe, Clean Water

4/15/21 Pratt School of Engineering

New faculty member Andrew Jones III blends environmental engineering and policy analysis, aiming to improve water quality and advance water equity

Andrew Jones III: Expanding Access to Safe, Clean Water

Andrew Jones III will join the faculty of Duke University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in July 2021. Jones comes to Duke from an Assistant Professorship in Chemical Engineering at Northeastern University, after completing his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In the lab, Jones designs new ways to treat water and measure water quality, which is why he devotes so much time to the study of bacterial biofilms—sticky cell matrices that adhere tenaciously to all kinds of surfaces, from the walls of aquariums to the valves of the human heart. Understanding how these bacterial communities form and how they can be safely and effectively dissolved is key to Jones’s research mission: enabling high-tech solutions that are backed by policy to expand access to safe, clean water.

In the last few years, the idea of a “water smart grid,” akin to an electric smart grid, has gained traction as an equitable way to bring clean water to those who need it. In this type of system, resources are produced and stored locally—think home solar panels and their related batteries. But Jones said that most research and development muscle has focused on smart metering, which identifies patterns in consumption. That single focus has left two critical components of the smart water grid—distributed water generation and storage—in the lurch.

“Distributed storage was phased out when we moved away from water towers because of contamination issues,” explained Jones. Understanding how communities of bacteria form and what treatments they’re susceptible to is crucial to developing localized safe drinking water reserves, but it requires constant innovation—fresh water is frequently found to contain nanoparticles and antibiotics, which can counteract common antibacterial strategies. “We work on developing new antibiotics and studying how antibiotics react with bacteria and biofilms to remove them from certain systems—not just from drinking water systems, but also from the human body,” he said.

As more parts of the smart water grid come online, Jones is keen to ensure that the new technologies are made more widely available than they have been in the past. “Technology usually goes to people who have resources—for example, to install solar panels or to park electric vehicles in their driveways,” said Jones. “As new water technologies become available, how do we make sure they’re distributed equitably, so they lift everyone up rather than exacerbating the inequality we already see?”

“As new water technologies become available, how do we make sure they’re distributed equitably, so they lift everyone up rather than exacerbating the inequality we already see?”

Duke, with its highly regarded schools of medicine and public policy in addition to engineering, seemed to Jones to be the ideal place to dig into answering these important questions, and he expects nearby branches of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to be valuable resources in the future, when he seeks to involve policymakers in his work.

“You can create a new technology and you can market it, but it won’t go anywhere without some backing of federal policy,” said Jones. “Look at the catalytic converter, which was created to improve air quality. It wasn’t until 1975, when it was mandated by the government, that it started to make a very large impact on public health.”

The area’s history of agriculture and manufacturing make it an excellent place to interface with legacy water quality problems, said Jones. He sees potential for the Research Triangle area to develop a center of gravity around the kinds of environmental technologies that could address water pollution. “There’s no notable agricultural tech or environmental tech hub yet, in the way that Boston has biopharma and Silicon Valley has computing,” said Jones. “I think the Research Triangle would be a great location for this kind of center.”

As enthusiastic as Jones is about advancing his research agenda, he’s equally invested in teaching and relishes opportunities to give undergraduates exposure to university research. “Also, being able to learn from students in a way that’s hands-on is really fun,” said Jones. “Right now, instead of exams, I’ve assigned individual fluid dynamics projects, and a sophomore student taught me how helical flow can protect the human heart from atherosclerosis. I would not have done that research on my own, but now I’m trying to fit it in to studying biofilms in the heart and endocarditis. Running projects like that where students can explore—and I can learn from them—is so exciting.”

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