By Mallory Hughes
When Tori Forbes accepted the position as an Assistant Professor of Water Chemistry at the University of Iowa, she did not consider herself to be a “water chemist.” After becoming a member of the Water Sustainability Initiative, however, Forbes considers herself to be just that.
“I’m really fascinated with just the chemistry of water,” she said. “It’s one of the only solvents, that has very strong hydrogen bonding.”
Water is very unique from other liquids because the hydrogen of one water molecule can interact or bond with its neighbor and this leads to very interesting properties. For example, most other solids are denser than their melted, liquid form. But for water, we know that ice always floats on top of liquid water. Whiles a common occurrence, this is caused by the hydrogen interactions in water. What she enjoys most about being on the Initiative, though, is the broad avenues for which her research can go.
“I could definitely do more of the straight environmental side of things, or I can work on the engineering side of things where I develop material for water purification,” she said.
It seems that Forbes is making the most of her time at Iowa and tackling both. One of her main research topics right now is to understand how nuclear waste moves through environmental systems, particularly in water.
“We try to understand how uranium is going to interact with natural waters,” Forbes said. “There’s a lot of questions about how uranium forms complexes with organic matter and how it interacts with minerals.” And while uranium is the material her team is focusing on now, she hopes to expand that research to other elements that are associated with nuclear fuel, such as neptunium. Neptunium is uranium’s neighbor on the periodic table, but unlike uranium natural occurrence, neptunium is a by-product of nuclear fuel.
“Neptunium is man-made, so when there’s nothing left in the environment, it behaves in a very different manner than uranium does,” Forbes said.
And while Iowa only has one power plant, Forbes said she sees her research intersecting with issues on a regional, national, or even global scale. Even though these elements contain very, very complex chemistry, knowledge about them is growing.
“If we understand the chemistry we can better understand the remediation strategies,” she said.
On the materials development side of her research, Forbes has recently developed a nanotube that shows selective water uptake and transport. With this discovery, the team hopes to continue to explore the structural aspects of the new nanotube that results in the novel selectivity, in hopes of creating new membranes for water purification. This work was recently funded through an NSF CAREER Award through the Division of Solid State and Materials Chemistry. One of the outreach components of this grant includes a partnership with the University of Iowa Natural History Museum. She and other students in her research group will develop a display to show visitors how nanominerals and materials impact water quality. The new displays will feature interactive touch screens to engage the public on these issues that link back to the Iowa River and will also have activities for kids to learn more about where their water comes from. The goal is to allow visitors of all ages to become more knowledgeable about sustainable water practices and highlight how basic science conducted at Iowa can impact everyday life.
Forbes teaches “Inorganic Chemistry” and an inorganic chemistry seminar at the University of Iowa.