Can wood replace plastic?
Paul Fraumeni | April 7, 2014
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.
From manuscript to search ...
Guest blog by Chris Nighman | October 23, 2014Long before the advent of the Internet, and well before Gutenberg invented moveable type, medieval intellectuals devised information technologies to take advantage of a growing mass of Big Data repositories known as “manuscripts.” read more »
If you’re happy ...
Cathy Majtenyi | October 22, 2014Brock University recently launched a series of monthly podcasts covering a wide range of themes. As part of our own package of “Belief” related blog posts, Research Matters is pleased to present this exclusive interview with Brock Associate Professor of Psychology, Michael Busseri. Busseri will join two other colleagues to explore this topic in Brock’s January 2015 podcast, “What gives us a sense of wellbeing?” read more »
Lucid dreaming depends on ...
Trent University Staff | October 21, 2014New 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.
In money we trust
U of T Staff (With introduction by Patchen Barss) | October 20, 2014A 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 »