Chemical reaction

Research and innovation
Centre for Catalysis Research and Innovation

By Laura Eggertson

Writer, Freelance

Chemistry professors Tom Baker, Michael Organ and Deryn Fogg
Left to right: Chemistry professors Tom Baker, Michael Organ and Deryn Fogg of the Centre for Catalysis Research and Innovation. Photo: Peter Thornton
At the Centre for Catalysis Research and Innovation, researchers are harnessing catalysts to create sustainable manufacturing processes.

“We’re using structurally complex, highly desirable molecular entities that Nature has already designed and, rather than breaking them down, we are building on them.”

– Deryn Fogg

Petroleum-derived chemicals are intrinsic to virtually every product in today’s society, from the medicines we take to the agrochemicals that produce our food and the plastics that encase our mobile devices. As pressure mounts to reduce the world’s fossil fuel consumption, developing greener manufacturing processes that use less energy and produce less waste is becoming increasingly urgent.

At the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Catalysis Research and Innovation (CCRI), more than 30 researchers, led by director Michael Organ, are at the forefront of developing new catalysis technologies he believes will provoke more sustainable chemical reactions to drive industrial sectors from pharmaceuticals to agrochemicals.

Catalysts are molecules that, when paired with one or more chemicals, speed up the reaction that occurs when the combination interacts, without being consumed themselves. Catalysis is the technology that creates those matches. Green catalysis involves the search for new catalysts, as well as fresh combinations of chemicals to produce reactions at lower temperatures, with fewer unwanted by-products and less energy consumption.

Researchers in chemistry, chemical engineering and medicine are investigating the best ways to reduce our dependence on petrochemicals, from using catalysts to transform feedstocks and other kinds of biomass materials into chemical building blocks, to transforming renewable plant oils and wood by-products into specialty molecular products.

Chemistry professor and University Research Chair Deryn Fogg is among the researchers using catalysts to augment the molecular structure of essential oils, such as those derived from star anise, the fruit of an evergreen tree of the magnolia family. Her goal is to build new antioxidant compounds as the active ingredient in personal care products such as perfumes and skin creams, replacing current petroleum-based products.

“We’re using structurally complex, highly desirable molecular entities that Nature has already designed and, rather than breaking them down, we are building on them and elaborating on them directly,” she says. “It’s a much more efficient (and elegant) way of making these high-value products than starting from petroleum.”

Fogg is also studying the chemical reasons why catalysts eventually deactivate and decompose—one of the barriers to industrial implementation of potentially more efficient and greener catalysis processes.

“In green catalysis, you use a tiny amount to drive a chemical reaction,” explains Organ. “In an ideal world, you only need one molecule.”

But since most catalysts do eventually wear down and deactivate, chemists generally need more than a single molecule to ensure that their processes work—and companies often require many tens of thousands of reactions per catalyst molecule in making a popular product. Understanding and controlling catalyst decomposition is central to developing cleaner, more useful manufacturing processes, says Fogg.

The compounds Fogg and her colleagues are developing from plant-based products could also have a broader application in drug formulations to protect against arthritis, inflammatory diseases and even neurodegeneration, she says. The intersection between the work of chemists like Fogg and biomedical researchers affiliated with the CCRI is one of its strengths.

Other projects involve using catalysts to transform lignin—derived from plant cell walls and currently produced as a papermaking by-product—into value-added chemicals to replace the petroleumbased components of today’s materials.

“We’re trying to understand the catalysis of breaking down lignin in order to make valuable chemicals and materials like polymers,” says Tom Baker, Canada Research Chair in Catalysis Science for Energy Applications and a former director of the CCRI.

One of the centre’s newest initiatives is to build a database of catalysts from all over the world, housed at the University of Ottawa. Researchers or industrial clients could use its high throughput screening methods and sophisticated equipment to test the efficacy of different catalysts in their particular process. That could expand the uptake of newly invented catalysts into industrial processes, helping reduce energy costs and production of waste.

For the cost of gaining access to the unique database, those who contribute catalysts will be able to test them against a collection of biomedically relevant starting materials that the CCRI is planning to build, explains Organ. That access to new catalysts could result in transformative combinations of molecules that could give rise to start-up companies and entirely new industries.

Organ’s vision is to work with the City of Ottawa and the federal and provincial governments to create an industrial hub based on the use of flow catalysis to create sustainable manufacturing of fine chemicals, he says. “I want to put Ottawa in the spotlight of the world of catalysis. There’s tremendous potential.”