The Department of Chemical Engineering is proud to announce the appointment of two of its faculty members as Canada Research Chairs (CRC). The designation of Canada Research Chair is an honour bestowed upon exceptional emerging researchers. Professors Valerie Ward and Tizazu Mekonnen are both trailblazers in their respective fields.

Ward now holds a CRC in Microalgae Biomanufacturing. Her research group uses microalgae to make a variety of products.

Dr. Valerie Ward ( far right) with members of her research group

Dr. Valerie Ward ( far right) with members of her research group

Developing alternative feedstocks

Ward’s research group investigates using algae as an alternate feedstock to fossil fuels which are currently used to produce many of the chemicals society depends on daily to produce items such as plastics, textiles for clothing, and even cosmetic ingredients and some types of medication. Algae is useful as it photosynthesizes and uses carbon dioxide as its main carbon feedstock.

“We need to be able to produce biomass from CO2 to make these chemicals, but the costs are not competitive right now with fossil fuels and so one of the things that we can do is look at taking a similar approach to oil refining. We use a biological method called biorefining,” says Ward.

Ward engineers the algae to make some high-end products, like isoprenoids used for pharmaceutical applications, that can help offset the cost of producing low-end products like biofuels or plastics from the same algae. This approach will contribute to a circular economy.

Biomedical applications of algae

Ward’s research also aims to use microalgae to produce prominent proteins for health applications. Her research group inserts DNA into proteins to produce recombinant proteins that can be used as vaccine antigens.

Ward’s Microalgae Biomanufacturing Lab is focused on using microalgae as an oral delivery mechanism for producing vaccines for salmon. On fish farms, viruses can decimate up to 99 percent of the salmon population, resulting in billion-dollar losses and potentially creating food insecurity.

“The idea is that if we produce this virus protein in the microalgae, if we feed the algae as a feed to the fish it will prime their gut against this virus and reduce the ability of the virus to infect the fish,” says Ward.

Focus on training Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP)

To Ward, receiving a CRC designation is meaningful because it will allow her to focus on training her students. The chemical engineers she is training in her lab will be an essential part of a sustainable future.  Organic molecules created from biomass could one day replace fossil fuels as feedstock.

Mekonnen, now a CRC in Sustainable Multiphase Polymers agrees that this honour will help to train highly qualified personnel in his labs.

“A key aspect of conducting research in a university environment is the recruitment, training, and supervision of the next generation of highly qualified personnel (HQP). The CRC provides me with the name recognition to attract talent to Waterloo Engineering.  I will put particular emphasis on training HQP to become independent scientists who will provide solutions to the future needs and challenges of Canada’s polymer sustainability, for applications in the water and wastewater, agri-food, construction, automotive, healthcare, and commodity industries,” says Mekonnen.

Research to address the plastic waste crisis

The negative impact of plastics on the environment cannot be ignored. Plastic production generates more than three percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions – comparable to emissions from the aviation industry.

Mekonnen, who recently won the Macromolecular Science and Engineering Division (MSED) Early Career Instigator Award has expertise in polymer engineering and sustainability.

Although plastics are an integral part of our lives, the downside is that a significant portion of the produced plastics are used for single-use and short-term applications. These are often released into uncontrolled dumpsites, and leech into the terrestrial and aquatic environments, or are burned in open pits causing substantial environmental pollution.

Mekonnen’s research focuses on advancing comprehensive strategies to discover innovative platforms for the development of sustainable multiphase and multifunctional plastics.

A group of people standing in front of pictures with Dr. Tizazu Mekonnen in the middle

Dr. Tizazu Mekonnen ( center) and his research group

Environmental Remediation

This work encompasses the development of novel routes and modification chemistries for the conversion of renewable feedstock chemicals, such as sugars, lignin, plant oils, and other naturally sourced starting materials into sustainable plastics. Switching plastic production platforms from petrochemical to biomass has a significant contribution to reducing emissions.

Mekonnen’s research group recently created new technology to remediate nanoplastic pollution in water systems with 94 percent efficiency.

Both Ward and Mekonnen plan to lead impactful collaborative research programs with other faculty members at the University of Waterloo, as well as with other national and international institutions and industries. Congratulations to our new Canada Research Chairs!

Read more about CRC funding.