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‘Vital support’

More than $285,000 investment for high-performance research infrastructure

By Jeff Green

Three research teams in the Faculty of Science are kicking off the fall semester on a high note.

They have secured a total of $286,834 in funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) for cutting-edge scientific tools and equipment.

The investment will enhance research facilities and labs with sophisticated infrastructure for studies broadly focused on mineral exploration, climate change and nanoparticles.

On Sept. 21, François-Philippe Champagne, minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, announced an investment of $64 million in Government of Canada funding through CFI’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF).

The contribution will help universities more competitively recruit and retain outstanding researchers by helping acquire the high-tech labs, equipment and facilities they need to make discoveries that will have an impact on Canadians.

The investment is supporting 251 projects at 40 universities across the country.

Trio of projects

Drs. Michael Babechuk, assistant professor and project leader, along with Eric Thiessen, assistant professor, and Sue Ziegler, professor and Canada Research Chair in Boreal Biogeochemistry, all from the Department of Earth Sciences, are receiving $89,000 for the project, Advanced Microwave Digestion for Solution-based Elemental and Isotopic Analyses at the Mineral- to Bulk Sample-scale.

Drs. Talia Jane Stockmann, assistant professor and project leader, and Fran Kerton, professor, both from the Department of Chemistry, are receiving $79,792 for the project, Supercritical Carbon Dioxide Spectro-electrochemical Analysis Lab.

Dr. Heloise Therien-Aubin, assistant professor and project leader, Department of Chemistry, is receiving $118,042 for the project, Infrastructure for the Preparation of Nanostructured Polymer-based Materials.

Unique instrumentation

Wearing a grey jacket, light-coloured shirt and red patterned tie, Dr. Michael Babechuk's right hand is leaned against a green rail. A view of the St. John's campus is in the background.
Dr. Michael Babechuk
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Dr. Babechuk says the funding will be used to acquire a piece of high-tech equipment that will be the only one of its kind in Atlantic Canada dedicated to geochemistry.

“Many analytical methods require us to dissolve solid materials, rocks, sediment, soils, into an acid solution for measurement,” he said.

“This is not always a trivial task. The mineral zircon, for example, is extremely chemically resistant, the same property that allows it to survive on Earth’s surface for billions of years. The new equipment provides us with flexibility to dissolve all minerals and thus all sample types. It will also significantly improve our efficiency in dissolving biological materials like animal soft tissue and vegetation.”

Dr. Babechuk says to date they’ve had to send samples requiring specialized dissolution to other facilities, but this new equipment will allow full analytical capability at the university.

“We are understanding how surface environments responded to global climate change.” — Dr. Michael Babechuk

“It is going to massively expand the range of research applications possible at Memorial,” he noted.

“We are understanding how surface environments responded to global climate change in the past and how they are responding to climate change now, but also how metamorphism in Earth’s crust can control the timing and location of ore deposition, topics of immediate societal and economic relevance to Canadians.”

Green energy

Dr. Talia Jane Stockmann is seen wearing dark rimmed glasses and a dark-coloured shirt.
Dr. Talia Jane Stockmann
Photo: Submitted

Dr. Stockmann says CFI’s investments will help Memorial build a globally unique piece of equipment known as a supercritical carbon dioxide reactor.

It will be used to develop next generation technologies for converting carbon dioxide into useful chemical products.

“Carbon dioxide is a critical greenhouse gas and removing it from the atmosphere or from industrial waste gases is of the utmost importance,” she noted.

“Supercritical carbon dioxide is a special phase of matter in which the gas has been heated and compressed into a state where it has properties of both a liquid and a gas. This is important as liquids are much easier to react than gases. Over 95 per cent of electricity in Newfoundland and Labrador is hydroelectric, so powering reactors like this one with green energy means that we can develop methods of carbon dioxide capture and utilization that are themselves green.”

“This funding is invaluable.” — Dr. Talia Jane Stockmann

Dr. Stockmann says the reactor has been designed by the engineering team within the Department of Technical Services, a unit within the vice-president (research) portfolio, and will be built in-house.

“Its design is one-of-a-kind in the world and will give Memorial students an entirely unique training opportunity,” she said. “More importantly, these students will be contributing directly to solutions that will mitigate climate change. In both senses, this funding is invaluable.”

Behaviour of polymers

Wearing dark rimmed glasses and a blue patterned shirt, Dr. Heloise Therien-Aubin smiles. Green leaves are seen in the background.
Dr. Heloise Therien-Aubin
Photo: Submitted

Dr. Therien-Aubin says CFI’s funding will expand Memorial’s scientific infrastructure and enhance research examining the behaviour of polymers, including how their structure and composition can influence their end-use.

“Specifically, we are more interested in how nanointerfaces affect the behaviour of the polymers,” Dr. Therien-Aubin explained.

“A type of system where this is very important is the production of nanocomposites, and more generally, nanostructured materials. One interesting thing about nanostructured materials is that the final properties are more than just the sum of the properties of their components. By building a more complex ensemble, we get new properties.”

Dr. Therien-Aubin says this phenomenon is similar to the differences between a brick wall and a single brick.

“The use of these tools will make possible the fabrication of new products.” — Dr. Heloise Therien-Aubin

“They do not have the same properties and functions. The wall has new collective properties; the ensemble possesses functions and properties that the individual brick doesn’t. The collective properties can emerge in the final material due to the assembly of smaller structural units.”

The support from CFI allows the team to develop new processing methods.

“The requested infrastructure will serve as a platform for preparing nanostructured polymer-based materials, and facilitating the development of innovative nanoparticles and nanofibers made of polymer,” Dr. Therien-Aubin noted. “The use of these tools will make possible the fabrication of new products that do not exist, including new vaccines, anticorrosion coatings, antifouling coatings and sustainable concrete.”

Thinking big

“Congratulations to Drs. Babechuk, Stockmann and Therien-Aubin, and their teams, for securing this vital support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation,” said Dr. Tana Allen, acting vice-president (research).

“In order to think big and innovate, our researchers need access to state-of-the-art equipment and infrastructure. Through the financial support from our federal government, our teams will lead dynamic projects, make world-class discoveries and become leaders in their respective fields. I look forward to learning more about these projects and how Canadians will benefit from the work being led by Memorial.”

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