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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From farm to fork

ORION staff | October 9, 2015

It’s morning. Farmers across Ontario are waking up to tend to their animals. You might be sitting down to a plate of scrambled eggs—maybe even a few strips of bacon. We take it for granted that this food will be safe to eat. But we rarely think about why. That, in part, is thanks to people like University of Guelph systems design engineer Deborah Stacey. Relying on a high-performance computing network, her research helps inform the regulatory structures that ensure our food is free of contamination and that the animals it comes from are healthy. It is, in part, due to her work that we now have modelling programs such as NAADSM, the North American Animal Disease Spread Model. This is the software governments and industry rely on to plan for and prevent epidemics. “NAADSM allows you to put in various scenarios for various animal diseases to see how they would spread,” says Stacey. “My interest is in looking at the network connections within that: contact, moving animals from one herd to another, and licking or touching other animals. I’m interested in how these contact networks differ across industries, which could suggest a different path of disease spread.” This research is then used by organizations such as the Guelph-based Poultry Industry Council to help determine which transportation and feed networks most effectively limit or eliminate things like avian diseases—in other words, how to ensure your scrambled eggs are safe. Stacey’s work produces a staggering amount of data, and it requires a lot of statistical analysis. It’s done through the Shared Hierarchical Academic Research Computing Network, or SHARCNET, a consortium of Ontario universities, colleges and research centres using a shared system of distributed high-performance computing, linked together through the ORION network. “Studying these networks made me more aware of how we develop and distribute the food we eat,” Stacey says. “It was surprising to find out how critical these farming systems are, and that they can be understood using mathematical models. These human systems that we’ve evolved are incredibly complex, and it was enlightening to see how much we need to study this—our food safety and security depend on understanding these systems.” A  version of this story was originally published by ORION.  It has been edited for clarity, accuracy and brevity, and is republished here with permission. 
Student studying

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Sharon Oosthoek | September 28, 2015

Nipissing University sociologist David Zarifa studies the educational and labour market experiences of disadvantaged youth, and he has good news and bad news. The good news: access to undergraduate education continues to increase for traditionally disadvantaged students, including those from low-income families or whose parents did not continue past high school. The bad news: at the higher levels — post-graduate and professional programs — the playing field is much less level. Zarifa came to this conclusion after a close examination of Statistics Canada’s National Graduate Survey of the year 2000 cohort. The survey looks at the experience of 35,000 undergraduates who completed various programs across all provinces and territories. Sociologists have long known that social origins can influence a student's educational experience, directly through parents’ level of education and indirectly through student performance, aspirations, and academic confidence. But there is very little research in Canada about how social origins influence professional or graduate school attendance. When Zarifa crunched the Statistics Canada numbers, he found nearly 35 per cent of undergrads whose parents had a master’s or doctorate degree entered a professional or graduate level program. That compares to only about 13 per cent of graduates whose parents did not have a postsecondary education. He also found about 21 per cent of graduates without government-sponsored student loans entered a graduate or professional program, compared to only about 14 per cent of graduates with loans above $15,000. Zarifa says he is discouraged to see parent education still has an impact at the graduate and professional level, even when taking into consideration other important factors such as academic abilities, aspirations and the educational experiences of graduates. "You would hope by the time students have their undergraduate degree, they wouldn't have this disadvantage in carrying on and trying to better their career prospects," he says. He hopes his study draws attention to some of the challenges facing groups from less privileged backgrounds: "While more and more students are continuing on into some form of postsecondary education, not all social groups are accessing the most lucrative segments within the postsecondary system equally."  
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Welcoming newcomers

Robyn Dugas | August 25, 2015

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Tracking turtles

Sharon Oosthoek | August 24, 2015

James Paterson spent the spring of 2009 and 2010 hiding behind trees and crouching in the underbrush of Algonquin Park. Thus camouflaged, he allowed himself an occasional peek as he waited patiently for turtles to lay their eggs in the woods. But as soon as they left, he would dash out with a screen to cover the nests and protect the eggs from predators. read more »
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When exile drags on

Araina Bond | August 19, 2015

When James Milner visited Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps in November 2001, they had been in place for almost a decade.  The camps are now nearly 25 years old and their occupants — mostly Somalis fleeing civil war and drought — number 350,000, making the camps the largest refugee settlement in the world. read more »
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