Can wood replace plastic?

This article is being created using a keyboard that is made up mostly of the material that revolutionized manufacturing when it was invented in the mid 1800s—plastic.

The problem with plastic, however, is that it is made from petroleum. We’re running out of petroleum. Besides, the actual manufacturing process that creates plastic is harmful to the environment.

But Emma Master believes she will one day be able to replace the plastic that makes up this keyboard with wood fibre. That’s right—wood or other material that comes from plants. The general term is biomass—“The structural stuff that living systems build,” says Master.

Master, assistant professor* in Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry (and cross-appointed in Cell and Systems Biology), is working with a cadre of engineers, biologists, and physical scientists at U of T in a unique-in-Canada biotechnology research centre called BioZone.

Funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, BioZone brings together biotech research programs that are addressing the urgent challenges in sustainable energy and environmental protection.

“My motivation is to harness the diversity and complexity of natural materials,” says Master. “My colleagues and I believe that biological systems synthesize some of the most ornate materials. If we are going to live in a world that doesn’t rely on petroleum and fossil fuel, biomass will be crucial. It’s a wonderful material that we have primarily used only coarsely thus far, but has so much more potential.”

Master’s chief tool in harnessing biomass is another invention of nature—the enzyme.

Simply put, enzymes make things happen. Scientists call them catalysts—proteins that create chemical reactions. When you swallow food, enzymes help you digest it. They are also at the centre of making apples turn brown when they are exposed to air. “We all have enzymes in our cells that help us operate as living beings,” says Master.

Her enzyme research program has three prongs—enzyme discovery, engineering, and application development.

One of her research activities involves changing plant fibres’ ability to repel water. “If we are going to replace plastic with plant fibre, we have to match the plant’s ability to repel water with that of plastic, which handles this quite well.” To do that, they are increasing what is called the ‘surface hydropho-bicity’ of the fibre. And to do that, Master’s research team is linking water-repelling chemicals onto the surface of the fibre using enzymes as catalysts.

Another project has Master’s team working with scientists from the Alberta Research Council in taking fibres from wood, using enzymes to make them very smooth through a polishing process to generate what’s called ‘nanocrystalline cellulose’, which can be used in a broad range of products including liquid crystal displays—better known as the LCDs used in your flat screen TV or digital clock.

Master, who is also a member of U of T’s Pulp and Paper Research Centre, believes firmly in the potential for greater uses for wood fibre.

“In addition to the environmental benefits that we can realize by using wood fibre to replace petrochemicals, there is an economic motivation too. It is increasingly difficult for Canadian forest companies to compete in conventional pulp and paper markets, and so it is necessary to start harnessing higher value from this rich natural resource. Other northern countries, including Sweden, have already recognized this. My hope is that through research innovation, Canada will lead in the development of novel, renewable forest products, which will benefit Canadian communities as well as the environment.”

 

*This story was originally published in U of T’s Edge Magazine and is reposted here with permission. Since the time of original publication, Emma Master has become an Associate Professor.

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Lucid dreaming depends on ...

Trent University Staff | October 21, 2014

New research by Trent University Oshawa Anthropology professor Roger Lohmann and graduate student Shayne Dahl indicates that cultural learning shapes the kind of awareness and control people can experience while dreaming. “Scouring the ethnographic record on dreaming for hints of lucidity under Professor Lohmann’s guidance, I found something surprising: that lucid dreaming is widely thought to have serious consequences,” said Dahl, who completed his M.A. thesis, “Knowing Means Connecting with the Source of Life: Knowledge and Ethics among Blackfoot Traditionalists” at Trent in 2012. (He is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto.) “As one of my Blackfoot informants put it, ‘You could die in your dream.’” Lohmann and Dahl’s findings were published in the 2014 collection, Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep. Lucid dreaming – waking consciousness arising during a dream – has been a hot topic of scientific research in recent years. According to Lohmann and Dahl, the common assumption that dreams are products of isolated imaginations has distorted our understanding of lucidity’s variation in form, function, and real-world outcomes. Pop culture portrayals in films such as Avatar and Inception present fantasies where lucid dreaming enables marvelous real-world powers. Many traditional and religious cultural worldviews take the relationship between waking and dream worlds as reality rather than fantasy. Lohmann’s fieldwork in Papua New Guinea among the Asabano people explored how they used dreaming as evidence for and contact with supernatural beings. “Asabano converts often told me that seeing dreams of Jesus or Heaven convinced them that what the missionary told them was true,” said Lohmann. “It struck me that they had to believe their dreams were more than figments of their own imaginations to reach that conclusion, and that I, for example, would not be convinced by the same experience because of my different cultural background.” Similarly, Dahl’s fieldwork in Alberta included encounters with Aboriginal medicine men who practiced lucid dreaming. “Shayne’s field experiences and his search of ethnographic literature brought home to us that lucid dreaming has profound potential for people who think it’s more than just a fantasy. We found that descriptions of lucid dreams are radically different in form, function, and outcome depending on the cultural assumptions of the dreamer,” said Lohmann. Their research revealed evidence that in some cultures, lucid dreaming is unknown, while in others it is a commonly taught skill. In some, lucidity is tacit rather than acknowledged, but people nevertheless believe that they actively undertake goals in their dreams. Lohmann and Dahl found that this implicitly lucid “volitional dreaming” commonly appears in ethnographic accounts of dreaming. In cultures where “generative” theory holds sway, dreaming of something is understood to cause it to happen in the waking world. This leads people to experience lucid dreams as opportunities to create or do magic. By contrast, people who believe dreams are what one sees during “soul travel” use lucid dreams as an opportunity to spiritually visit real places. “Even when we consciously disbelieve our dreams,” Dahl said, “They still affect us at a deeper, emotional level that we can’t easily control with reason.” “All of this shows that cultural dream theories are multiple, that people invoke them in complex ways, and that they are at the very core of what lucid dreaming is and what it makes possible,” said Lohmann. This story was originally published by Trent University on, July 15, 2014. Is has been edited for style, brevity and clarity and appears here with permission.

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U of T Staff (With introduction by Patchen Barss) | October 20, 2014

A few years ago, late, late at night, I was tooling around the streets of Ottawa in the back seat of a Jeep being driven by former Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge. American economist and Nobel Laureate George Akerlof was riding shotgun. read more »
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Marianne Koh | September 30, 2014

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Teresa Pitman | September 26, 2014

If you’ve ever bought ready-to-eat sushi, you may have noticed a blob of wasabi on the tray. It’s a convenient way to add pungent flavour to your lunch, but it also serves another purpose: it protects your food from micro-organisms. As food science professor Loong-Tak Lim explains, wasabi contains allylisothiocyanate, (AITC) a natural and potent anti-microbial that kills yeast and bacteria. Of course, not every food is enhanced by the strong flavour of wasabi, so Lim has developed a packaging system that offers the same antimicrobial benefits . Lim derives his AITC from ground mustard powder, and uses a patented nanotechnological process to spin tiny fibres that encapsulate the naturally sourced agent in the packaging. “The conventional approach to adding preservatives has been to add them to the food,” says Lim's research colleague Suramya Mihindukulasuriya. “But processing the food may break down the preservative. By having the preservative in the packaging, we don’t need as high a concentration to enhance the shelf-life, safety and quality of the food.” So-called “active packaging,” responds to changes in the environment and the food itself, Lim says. In this case, the membrane responds to a certain level of moisture and releases a preservative to prevent spoiling. Other active packaging materials respond to heat and light. Mihindukulasuriya works with a preservative called hexanal, the volatile organic compound you smell when you cut grass or slice a cucumber. Hexanal helps preserve cell membranes of fruits and vegetables so they don’t become soft or soggy as they ripen. The preservative also has some anti-microbial properties, which are activated by heat and humidity. Mihindukulasuriya calls her technique of enclosing the preservative using ultra-high electrical forces “electrospinning.” Lim jokes that “we are like Spiderman, spinning tiny fibres.” And the fibres are tiny – about 400 times smaller than a human hair. When exposed to humidity or water, these fibres become permeable and release the hexanal. During her PhD studies, Mihindukulasuriya also developed an oxygen indicator that is activated by ultraviolet radiation. When there is little or no oxygen in the package, the indicator is white, but if the package is damaged or torn, allowing oxygen to enter, the indicator turns blue. This matters because oxygen causes rapid deterioration of some foods, and higher levels of oxygen encourage the growth of more micro-organisms. These foods are sealed in vacuum packs or in packages flushed with nitrogen to remove the oxygen, but if the package becomes damaged at some point, oxygen can get inside. That’s where Mihindukulasuriya’s product comes in: a label with a blue line would indicate that the package should not be purchased. What’s next in active and intelligent packaging? Mihindukulasuriya is planning to develop a compound that will detect the volatile compounds produced by food when it spoils and indicate to consumers that the food should not be eaten. The technique would supplement expiry dates, which are only estimates based on typical situations. Not only would such packaging warn people that food had spoiled, it could also reassure them when it was safe to eat – even if the expiry date had passed. “People throw away lots of food that has expired but is still perfectly good to eat,” says Lim. This article was originally published by the University of Guelph. It has been edited for brevity, clarity and style, and is republished here with permission.
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