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Leveraging nature

Banting fellow funded $140,000 to mitigate oily wastewater, capture carbon dioxide in Arctic and Atlantic oceans

By Jackey Locke

Part of an ongoing series of Gazette stories celebrating researchers who received support as part of a major investment by the federal government in science and research on Aug. 29.

New applications for micro-organisms in the marine environment to remove contaminants, produce valuable products and help mitigate climate change.

As one of Memorial’s newest Banting fellows, it’s the focus of Dr. Yiqi Cao’s research in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.

Funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Banting Post-doctoral Fellowship is renowned worldwide for developing the leadership potential of notable new researchers.

He will receive a total of $140,000 over two years for his research under the supervision of Dr. Helen Zhang in the Department of Civil Engineering at Memorial.

Dr. Zhang says she is looking forward to working with the emerging young scholar.

“I expect this collaboration and its success will facilitate the understanding and application of biotechnologies in sustainable marine pollution mitigation and climate change adaptation – the critical and challenging topics in the field.”

Novel strategy

Economic benefits of Atlantic Canada’s ocean industries, inevitably, mean significant environmental and climate change issues.

This is especially the case for the massive discharge of marine oily wastewater and the release of greenhouse gases.

In the Arctic, climate change has meant longer ice-free periods and coastal regions are under threat.

Dr. Cao aims to create a novel strategy to simultaneously treat oily marine wastewater and capture greenhouse gases.

He says he plans to intensify natural processes in the marine environment using a strategy inspired by ocean hydrocarbon cycles.

A yellow man in his early 30s wearing glasses and a plaid shirt smiles for the camera
Dr. Yiqi Cao
Photo: Submitted

“Our ocean holds the capacity to degrade oils and absorb a huge amount of carbon dioxide,” he said. “The degradation of oils lies in the hydrocarbon-degrading microbes and the absorption of carbon dioxide is via the biological algae/cyanobacteria. They form a cycle in the marine environment, starting from carbon dioxide capture to produce hydrocarbons and oxygen by algae/cyanobacteria. These hydrocarbon-degrading microbes will then use hydrocarbons and produce carbon dioxide.”

Dr. Cao hopes the natural process can be intensified for engineering purposes to benefit Canada’s Arctic and North Atlantic regions.

“The bioreactor-based approach offers a relatively environmentally friendly pathway to artificially intensify the natural process,” he explained. “I’d like to try to employ and fabricate different bioreactors integrated with the simulated ocean process to realize the simultaneous treatment of various marine oily wastewater and capture carbon dioxide.”

He says he hopes the fellowship will enable him to develop technology to help benefit marine sustainability and the blue economy.

“The Banting Post-doctoral Fellowship is an unprecedented opportunity for me to develop this bio-inspired strategy to help resolve environmental problems in the ocean industries within the cold northern regions.”

Dr. Cao will also receive a Banting Post-doctoral Research Grant, valued at $10,000 per year over two years, to be jointly funded by Memorial’s Office of the Vice-president (Research) and the School of Graduate Studies.

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