Alumna, PhD Student Designs Nanotechnology to Tackle Egypt's Water Crisis

Nouran El Badawi ’06, '13, AUC alumna and a Yousef Jameel PhD fellow studying applied sciences with a specialization in chemistry, is committed to her research at AUC, exploring the application of membrane technology as a means to retrieve fresh water. Her thesis on this topic earned her recognition as the AUC winner of the 2016 Three Minute Thesis competition, a global challenge that prompts PhD students to explain their theses projects to a non-science audience in just three minutes.

El Badawi was drawn to this topic after learning about the water crisis affecting Egypt. “This triggered my enthusiasm about the project," she said. "If we can convert the prototypes we are using into something that can actually be put to use for the desalination of the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea or any of the canals we have access to, it would be a great source of water for the country."

Highlighting the importance and impact of El Badawi's work, Amal Esawi, associate dean for graduate studies and research in the School of Sciences and Engineering, mechanical engineering professor and one of El Badawi's PhD supervisors, noted, "Nouran's research deals with a critical topic considering concerns about the water shortage we have in Egypt and the lack of know-how on membrane manufacturing."

The competition gave El Badawi a chance to showcase her intricate knowledge and express her passion for her work. “I had to present my scientific thesis to a non-science audience, explaining it in the simplest way possible so they could understand something completely out of their scope,” El Badawi explained. “This was challenging because I only had one slide up. I couldn’t use more animation or photos to help present the material.”

Esawi described El Badawi's presentation as "captivating," [This is] "not only because of the topic she is addressing, but also because of the way she stressed that the water shortage problem will affect us all," affirmed Esawi. "She managed to grab the attention of the judges and the audience. She left them with the clear message that we all have a responsibility to solve the problems facing us and that she is making her own contribution through her PhD research."

In her thesis, El Badawi proposes a new design for polymer membranes with nanotechnology that can speed up the process of water filtration and produce more fresh water at a lower cost. Her research revolves around the insertion of miniscule tubes, called carbon nanotubes, into the filters of the membrane. “The beauty of using carbon nanotubes is that they allow water through the filter at exceptionally high rates,” explained El Badawi in her presentation. “If they are well-designed, they also separate the salts out. Therefore, we have more production of fresh water, less time and no thermal energy involved in the process whatsoever, so it’s actually cost-efficient.”

El Badawi’s advisers encouraged her to join the competition when she had initial doubts about participating. “I have known my adviser, Adham Ramadan, [dean of graduate studies and chemistry professor] since 2003, when I was an undergraduate student," she said. "He has been really supportive on a personal and academic level, which has meant a lot to me."

AUC has provided a supportive and constructive environment for El Badawi as she conducts her research. “What I enjoy about AUC is that you don’t need to make an appointment or go through formalities when you need help from someone. You can approach someone directly, and they will create time to help you,” El Badawi explained “AUC has also taught me that if I learn something, I need to pass on the information I have acquired. This process is what teaching is all about: helping and developing others.”

El Badawi previously attended AUC as an undergraduate and graduate student, earning her bachelor’s in chemistry in 2006, and her master’s in applied sciences with a specialization in chemistry in 2013. While pursuing her master’s, she specialized in food chemistry and began her work on materials to be applied to water filtration.

In between pursuing her degrees, El Badawi spent time working at different organizations, but ultimately felt drawn back to the lab and her research at AUC. After winning AUC’s Three Minute Thesis competition, she has continued to work on her research in the hopes of finding ways to manipulate conditions so that the membrane and nanomaterial can perform even better. “I enjoy the lab more than anything else," exclaimed El Badawi. "I feel this is where I belong. I belong to research, and I love academia. I definitely want to continue working here at AUC."