Spotlight on Steven Bryant and Robin Rogers

Meeting of Canada Excellence Research Chairs charts path to new science

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.

Solutions so compelling, industry embraces more sustainable practices

While Rogers and Bryant are experts in distinct disciplines, they both have an eye toward solving global challenges, they also share a passion for creating innovative solutions so compelling that industry will enthusiastically embrace more sustainable practices.

Rogers suggests that companies are driven by social approval as well as the usual economic factors; Bryant says it’s time to move beyond the usual extremes of saying either ‘shut it down’ or ‘ramp it up’ to industry: “What we’re saying is, let’s do things differently to derive value sustainably from these resources.”

The two researchers left the Waterloo conference anxious to continue their discussion, and to explore the possibility of using ionic liquids to transform the oil and gas industry. They arranged to meet again in Calgary, and, over several days in early July, they talked about their research interests and the possibility of collaboration, and discussed their ideas with Bryant’s team, as well as with chemists and engineers across campus.

Knowing that even the best ideas need to be practically applied to make an impact, Bryant and Rogers also share an interest in technology transfer and commercialization. While he was in Calgary, Rogers gave a talk on the commercialization of sustainable technology. As well, he and Bryant attended a plenary session at Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, and a Stampede breakfast with representatives from Innovate Calgary.

Taking a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach to untangling grand challenges

“The CERC program brings leaders in science to Canada and then ensures that they connect to chart new pathways to solutions—as Steven Bryant and Robin Rogers are doing. The prospect of what these two leaders in their rapidly advancing disciplines can do together represents the kind of expansive thinking that will solve our most pressing challenges, including those in energy,” says Ed McCauley, vice-president (research) at the University of Calgary.

As they wrapped up their Calgary meeting, Rogers says he didn’t want to limit Bryant’s imagination by outlining exactly what has already been done with ionic liquids. “The sky is the limit,” Bryant says. “The state-of-the-art now is if you can dream it, they can get it done.”

The end result of combining Bryant’s nanotechnology expertise with Rogers’ grasp of ionic liquids is uncharted territory, but both are keen to explore the possibilities and to pursue the partnership.

“Robin has his homework, and I have mine,” Bryant says. “We’ll see where this can lead and what we do next.”