Emerging materials hold promise of a more sustainable future

Faculty of Engineering
Chemical and Biological Engineering
Civil Engineering
Elena Baranova looking at a glass beaker.
Research teams at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Engineering are always busy trying to solve the pressing problems we face today, to ensure a sustainable future.

For example:

Converting CO2 into gasoline

In the Faculty of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Prof. Elena Baranova works to overcome the critical challenges we face with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making alternative fuel sources commercially feasible.

One area of focus is engineering “nanoparticle catalysts” that can convert that maligned greenhouse gas, CO2, into a liquid fuel.

That’s right – create diesel or gasoline that can be used in a conventional automobile engine. The intent is to use these nanoparticle catalysts with hydrogen to convert carbon dioxide into water and a high-quality carbon monoxide that is suitable to be made into fuel.

Prof. Baranova and her team are working with Natural Resources Canada on a scale-up facility to prove the commercial potential of their Made in Canada solution.

Producing 'green' hydrogen

Another area of Prof. Baranova’s research is to find more efficient ways of producing “green” hydrogen suitable for reaction with C02 to produce that high-quality carbon monoxide.

In this case, she is working on 3D nickel nanostructures to carry out water electrolysis. This is the breakdown of water into its constituent elements – oxygen and hydrogen – with the passage of an electric current.

“This hydrogen production is a way of storing renewable energy,” Prof. Baranova said. “The produced hydrogen could be used in fuel cells or reacted with CO2 to produce liquid fuels.”

Conventional water electrolysis requires a quite expensive catalyst for the reaction to occur – platinum.

“Advances in technology have significantly reduced the amount of platinum necessary, but cost and supply issues remain a big hurdle,” she said.

The Holy Grail is to replace platinum with another cheaper metal. In this case, that metal is abundant Canadian nickel.

Considering that the going market rate for platinum is around $1,200 an ounce, while nickel goes for about 65 cents an ounce, the benefits are obvious.

Growing sustainable building materials

Over in the Department of Civil Engineering, Professor Reza Foruzanmehr is investigating ways to boost the sustainability of the construction industry by converting readily available and local biomass – such as agricultural waste – into building materials.

This will help in reducing Canada’s escalating greenhouse gas emissions from the building materials manufacturing industry, which is currently responsible for six per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“Canada’s population is projected to increase by 50 per cent by 2036,” he said. “We will need to build a lot of new housing and that will create a demand for building materials and may lead to shortages.”

Prof. Foruzanmehr hopes to help communities in Canada’s North to become more self-sufficient and sustainable by decreasing dependence on building materials that often need to be flown in at a great expense.

Ensuring economic independence

“If we can provide remote communities with a means to create, locally, the materials needed to build and repair homes, communities could become more socially and economically independent,” he said. “This is a goal of sustainable development.”

The looming supply-demand issue for Canada as a whole applies to wood as well as engineered materials such as gypsum board. Demand for wood in construction could soon outstrip the rate at which new stock can grow to maturity.

One alternative to wood that Prof. Foruzanmehr is investigating is flax straw. Canada currently produces 1.2 million tonnes of flax straw annually. More than 75 per cent of this is discarded because it is the flax seed, not the stalk, that is valued. Flax straw’s availability and relative strength make it an ideal material that could be used to make reinforced composites for cladding building exteriors and for structural components.

This article was first published in the Ottawa Business Journal.