Professor Boxin Zhao is this year’s recipient of the Ontario Professional Engineering Association (OPEA) Research and Development Engineering Medal.

Administered by OPEA, the Research and Development Engineering Medal is awarded to individuals who have advanced engineering knowledge and have developed useful and novel applications. Zhao certainly fits the bill.

Zhao's research is at the frontier of surface science and engineering. His work focuses on innovative soft matter engineering and bionanomaterials research aimed at advancing sustainable manufacturing. This includes the development of smart polymers, advanced adhesives, and coating materials.

“It's exciting to be awarded the OPEA Engineering Medal. It’s wonderful to be recognized by my academic peers here at the University of Waterloo. It’s an especially meaningful honour to be recognized beyond the university. Receiving this award is valuable feedback that the work my research group is engaged in is useful, impactful, and contributing to society,” says Zhao, a University of Waterloo Endowed Chair in Nanotechnology Engineering.

In the area of adhesives, Zhao takes inspiration from nature. He developed a tiny climbing robot that could one day help doctors perform surgery. He was inspired by the incredible gripping ability of geckos and the efficient locomotion of inchworms. Zhao has created biomimetic hydrogel-based adhesives or “super glue” to address poor adhesion performance on wet surfaces. He looked to mussels that stick to rocks in the ocean for inspiration.

Zhao also engineers these adhesives to be multifunctional by adding elements to make them electrically conductive applications. These conductive adhesive hydrogels have biomedical applications and lend themselves well to be used as strain sensors and biosensors.

Zhao collaborates widely with industrial partners such as Celestica and Microbonds. In this collaboration, he designed conductive adhesives infused with nanocomposites to be used in electronic manufacturing.  Electronic packaging components that had to be soldered together in the past can now be attached using these soft electrically conductive adhesives with improved properties.

Another recent development from Zhao’s Surface Science and Bio-nanomaterials Laboratory Group are nanocrystalline cellulose lonogels. These are high-performance materials that are capable of functioning as multifunctional platforms for applications like grippers, temperature sensors, and 3D printing.

Zhao’s research group created a biogel, made of gelatin, to act as a skin-adhesive, wearable device, or epidermal adhesive electrodes for human-machine interfaces. Zhao focuses on precision engineering and designing advanced materials.

“We should be mindful when developing novel materials that we not only achieve high performance but that the materials contribute to sustainability. Nature inspires us with awe and beauty; it is critical to be a good steward of the resources we’ve been given.”

Zhao’s 134 peer-reviewed publications chronicle his groundbreaking research, which has significantly pushed the boundaries of soft matter engineering and applied science.

These discoveries demonstrate Zhao's commitment to advancing materials science for practical applications. Zhao will receive the award at the OPEA Gala in November 2024.