Young Innovator Award recognizes ground-breaking efforts
Written By: Shawn Benbow
2004-05-13A professor who thinks of himself as a graduate student, one who took advantage of a laboratory spill and another who uses unique technology to examine molecules have earned Petro-Canada Young Innovator Awards.
Dr. Subir Bhattacharjee and Dr. Alidad Amirfazli, both from the University of Alberta Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Dr. John Klassen of the Department of Chemistry are the recipients of the awards, established to acknowledge U of A faculty who break new ground in their fields of study.
Bhattacharjee says he “reverts” to being a graduate student himself every few years so he can come up with something new to research.
“Every three years I revert to being a grad student, in the sense that I pick up a new area to explore." He then works with graduate students to make these ideas reality, even when others say he won’t get anywhere. “Eighty per cent of my graduate students are working on ideas where people have told me not to even try, because they didn’t think it could be done in hundreds of years.”
He is developing a new way to purify oil emulsions in petroleum refineries. To extract crude oil from the ground, a large amount of water is mixed into the oil, and this water needs to be removed before processing.
“These oil droplets, when you send them to a secondary processing unit, can create a tremendous amount of complications, such as corrosion or even explosions. So, there has been a gradual shift to a zero-tolerance policy for water in the oil.”
At a conference two years ago Bhattacharjee saw a poster presentation on dielectrophoresis, and thought he could develop the idea into something usable in the petroleum industry.
With the assistance of graduate student Shahnawaz Molla, Bhattacharjee has created an electric membrane the size of a fingernail and covered it with electrodes thinner than a human hair.
Electrophoresis works by coaxing water out of the oil and to the membrane by running an electronic current through it.
“The basic physics have been resolved, so now we have to do the engineering part where we figure out how to make it bigger,” Bhattacharjee said. He’s got a list of things to try, and that’s what his current research is geared towards. In order to use this technique commercially, the membranes would need to be hundreds of times larger and able to treat millions of litres each day.
Dr. Alidad Amirfazli, also in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, has been working for two years on developing what some have termed “super Teflon,” but he’s adamant that is not exactly the right term.
“What we’re trying to do is reduce the ‘wetability’ of a surface--in other words, if you put a drop of water onto a surface that is hydrophobic, the water beads up instead of spreading out across the surface,” Amirfazli explains.
Traditionally, research in these areas has focused solely on the chemicals that coat a surface. “With chemistry alone, there’s a limit to what you can do--it’s Teflon. We are trying to create micro-textures on the surface that would trap air in the surface pores which would reduce the wetability.”
Amirfazli first came across this technique while supervising a WISEST (Women is Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology) summer student. “We were trying to follow the literature to produce these textured surfaces fairly unsuccessfully. But then by accident the student spilled the polymer on a table, and embarrassed, cleaned it up really quickly. At first I was sort of angry because of the mess, but I said we should do the experiment on the table, and it worked,” Amirfazli said.
The specific polymer he was using at the time crystallized in such a way that the wetability of the table was greatly reduced. However, the polymer used is too brittle. Since then, Amirfazli has been working with other students to come up with an appropriate surface micro-texture for other materials.
Realistically, such a surface could be used in hundred of applications, from non-stick cookware to self-cleaning glassware and windows and in lab-on-a-chip devices being developed by U of A researchers.
When you first step into Dr. John Klassen’s lab, you’re warned to remove all metal and electronic devices and set them aside. Apparently, a really strong magnet is needed to research how organic molecules bond.
Klassen is developing a system to analyse biological molecules out of water. Using mass spectrometry, Klassen can identify bonds between atoms and molecules, and figure out how they interact.
“I got my first taste using mass spectrometry for studying charged molecules in my fourth-year undergraduate research project, and it just clicked,” Klassen said.
After graduating with a PhD from the U of A, he travelled to the University of California at Berkeley to get formal training with a Fourier-transform mass spectrometer “the Cadillac of mass spectrometers”
“There was really no one in Canada using the instrumentation, so I went to Berkeley specifically to get a handle on that, and bring that technology back to Canada.”
Klassen studies molecules two ways: in an aqueous (water) solution and in a gas phase. He then compares the two results to find the impact of water.
One promising application, he says, is in the pharmaceutical industry. “A lot of new drug discoveries involve making a large library of possible molecules, and you hope that a few of them will perform the function you’re interested in,” Klassen said. Using mass spectrometry to find interactions between molecules could lead to the development of drugs that are more likely to perform their specific function.
This article originally appeared in Express News.