Nanotechnology expert Steven Bryant and green chemist Robin Rogers get together to discuss innovative and sustainable solutions for industry
At first glance, making plastics from tree bark and medical sutures from shrimp shells has little in common with the search for more sustainable energy. Yet, two of Canada’s leading researchers are looking at the process used to develop these new, engineered materials, to try to transform the oil and gas industry.
The use of new materials to solve big industry problems is one of the fastest growing fields of science, and one where Steven Bryant, Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs at the University of Calgary, and Robin Rogers, CERC in Green Chemistry and Green Chemicals at McGill University, are at the forefront.
Rogers and Bryant started talking over the possibilities of combining their research into new materials in April, when they attended the annual CERC meeting in Waterloo. The CERC program brings the world’s best researchers to Canada—so, the annual meeting reads like a who’s who of the best scientific minds. Both researchers had been invited to present at the meeting. Bryant, an internationally acclaimed nanotechnology engineer, attended Rogers’ lecture on ionic liquids and green chemistry, and Rogers took in Bryant’s discussion on the scale and nature of oilsands challenges.
The seeds of innovation and collaboration began to germinate.
“I’d heard of ionic liquids, but didn’t really understand what they were until I heard Robin’s presentation,” says Bryant. “What I learned was there is a lot of common ground: some of the things he’s doing, the techniques he’s using, could really be applicable in dealing with the challenges we are tackling here in terms of heavy oil and bitumen.”
Researchers at the top of their fields
Bryant was recruited as the University of Calgary’s first CERC in October 2014. His research focuses is on improving the efficiency of in-situ oil recovery in the oilsands by using advances in nanotechnology. By using chemically altered particles that attach differentially to oil and water, and that are tiny enough to pass through reservoir pores, Bryant and his team are hoping to use less steam, recover more oil, and reduce—and, ultimately, eliminate—the carbon footprint of unconventional hydrocarbon extraction.
Rogers is recognized as a world leader in designing and developing next-generation sustainable biomaterials. His revolutionary research has involved ionic liquids—a new class of salts that are liquid at room temperature and have the potential to transform chemical and materials science and industry manufacturing.
Using ionic liquids, Rogers has developed a process that creates renewable plastics from the breakdown of lignin—a polymer found in plants that gives structure to wood and bark and is usually destroyed in the pulp and paper process. Rogers has also discovered a way to use the chitin in discarded shrimp shells to manufacture useful and valuable products like sutures and bandages.