In nature, one organism’s waste often becomes energy for another – and the University of Toronto’s Emma Master wants to apply these same principles to industrial manufacturing.
“We can leverage biological processes to recycle carbon and clean water, as well as to upgrade natural materials into diverse and useful products,” says Master, a professor in the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.
“At the end of their life, we can also break down these products into building blocks that we can reassemble as something new. This is what’s known as the ‘circular bio-economy.’”
Master is one of three U of T engineering researchers who have attracted a total of more than $4.5 million in support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) Program. With a focus on collaboration and addressing significant scientific challenges, CREATE supports the training of teams of students and post-doctoral researchers through the development of innovative training programs.
This is the largest number of CREATE grants ever awarded to U of T engineering in a single round, and brings the total number of CREATE programs underway at U of T to eight.
Master and her colleagues at BioZone, a multidisciplinary research centre at U of T Engineering, have more than a decade of experience in using innovative biotechnology techniques to produce more sustainable products. That includes bio-based chemicals, bio-based materials and fuels, as well as removing contaminants from air, water and soil.
With the new CREATE grant, she and her team will enhance the translation of their research into the marketplace.
“Canada has lots of fresh water, lots of high-quality biomass, and we’ve made big investments in genomics and other forms of biotechnology,” says Master. “Yet our industrial biotechnology sector is still quite small. We want to change that.”
The team is pursuing training programs under three broad themes:
- Data fluency: New courses will enable researchers to make their experimental data more accessible to collaborators in both academia and industry. This will include instruction in data-mining and management techniques that can facilitate data sharing and rapid discovery of new insights from large data sets.
- Intellectual property transfer: Researchers will partner with U of T Engineering’s Entrepreneurship Hatchery and the U of T Faculty of Law to explore open science alternatives to the traditional, patent-based system of licensing intellectual property. The goal is to find methods that are faster and more efficient, while enabling academic researchers to retain recognition for their innovations.
- Leadership: In partnership with the Troost Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (Troost ILead), the team will enable graduate students and post-docs to develop the competencies to take on industrial leadership positions. This component will also look at ways to enhance the participation of traditionally underrepresented groups in industrial biotech.
“We have an opportunity to help build a strong environmental and industrial biotech sector in Canada,” says Master. “Technology is a part of that, but another part is building a culture that retains diverse perspectives.”
The other two CREATE projects from U of T Engineering are:
NSERC CREATE in Health-care Robotics (HeRo): Yu Sun, director of the U of T Robotics Institute and a professor in the department of mechanical and industrial engineering, and a team of robotics faculty members are training a new generation of experts to more seamlessly integrate robotics into health care. Their projects include wearable robots that provide guidance on rehabilitation treatment, social robots that help seniors with cognitive impairments and surgical robots that can wirelessly navigate the human body to facilitate surgical procedures.
NSERC CREATE in Design of Living Infrastructure for Ecosystem Services (DesignLIFES): Jennifer Drake, an associate professor in the department of civil and mineral engineering, and her team are focusing on making cities more sustainable and more resilient in the face of pressures such as rapid urbanization and climate change. “Living infrastructure” refers to both natural and constructed ecological systems, including parks, trees on streets, green roofs and designed wetlands. If properly designed and implemented, they have the potential to remove contaminants from air and water, prevent floods by smoothing out storm water flows, and even regulate the microclimate within cities.
“We are very proud of the multidisciplinary teams that each of our researchers have assembled, and the innovative strategies they are pursuing,” says Ramin Farnood, U of T Engineering’s vice-dean of research.
“These new programs will provide valuable experiential learning opportunities for our graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, helping to train a new generation of engineering leaders.”