Aiping Yu is one step closer to her dream of establishing a world-leading carbon nanotechnology centre at the University of Waterloo after winning a prestigious award for highly promising researchers.

The chemical engineering professor is one of six nation-wide recipients of 2020 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships announced today by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Winners receive $250,000 in research grants over two years and, via payments of up to $90,000 a year to their universities, are freed from teaching and administrative duties so they can concentrate on research full-time.

Yu, who has been at Waterloo Engineering for more than a decade after working for a year in the plastics industry, is thrilled by the recognition and the opportunity to take her work in the lab to the next level.

Two years to 'take off and fly'

“As a female researcher, it is difficult to balance family life and career development,” she says. “I appreciate this award because it gives me two years of teaching relief so I can really take off and fly.”

As director of the Applied Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory, Yu’s main research focus is on carbon nanomaterials, particularly carbon nanotubes and graphene, to make longer-lasting, smaller, faster-charging batteries and supercapacitors.

Carbon nanotubes and graphene are particularly well-suited to those applications, including use in electric vehicles and consumer electronics such as smartphones and laptops, because they are highly conductive and have large surface areas.

“These two materials are the driving forces pushing the entire development of nanotechnology,” Yu says. “They have amazing physical properties.”

A secondary area of research involves the use of graphene at the nanoscale level as an additive to an extremely expensive polymer coating for corrosion protection of pipelines made of carbon steel.

Making Waterloo a world leader

The modified graphene additive improves corrosion protection and enables the use of thinner coats of the rubber-like substance, yielding significant savings for pipeline companies.

Yu plans to use her Steacie grant to attract high-quality graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, including Waterloo grads who might otherwise go to the United States.

“Top graduate students and postdocs are extremely important to research programs, and it is my ambition to make Waterloo and Canada leaders in research and development of carbon nanomaterials,” she says.

Edgar William Richard Steacie was a chemist and a researcher who made major contributions to science in Canada during and immediately after World War Two. He also led the National Research Council of Canada from 1952 to 1962.

Photo: NSERC/CRSNG - Sylvie Li