Hélio Castroneves knows how much materials research matters. When the three-time Indy 500 winner screams around the corners at this month’s Indy races in Toronto, he’ll be relying on decades of materials research that have helped make his racecar faster, safer and more efficient.
On July 17, Castroneves joined U of T Engineering to unveil the Ontario Centre for Characterization of Advanced Materials (OCCAM) – a high-tech facility in the Wallberg Building that enables researchers to explore and develop novel materials for use in electronics, renewable fuels, construction, medical devices and even futuristic racecar design.
All material properties are governed by forces at the atomic level. Studying these interactions is the key to developing innovative new materials, no matter the ultimate application. OCCAM’s new $20-million facility, funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation (MRI) and Hitachi High-Technologies Canada, creates a collaborative one-stop-shop for advanced materials research at the atomic scale. The centre is co-led by Professors Charles Mims (ChemE) and Doug Perovic (MSE) and houses a collection of advanced analytical instruments for surface and structural studies that was described as the best in Canada and very unusual in the world by an external reviewer. “This new facility will put our Departments, Faculty and the University of Toronto on the leading edge of surface characterization that will impact our research, education and industrial collaboration in fields ranging from sustainable energy to next generation biomedical devices,” said ChemE Chair Grant Allen.
OCCAM grew out of collaboration between Mims’ highly successful Surface Interface Ontario facility and Perovic’s electron microscopy facility, and brings a unique and powerful combination of cutting-edge technology to the University of Toronto. Together, they have worked with hundreds of researchers studying materials from teeth to fruit flies to electrical conductors to meteorites. New equipment includes major upgrades of surface capabilities critical for biological and electrical surfaces, and the addition of long-needed frontline microscopy tools. A close partnership with Hitachi High-Technologies Canada has brought five new cutting-edge instruments to the facility.
To celebrate OCCAM’s launch, faculty members, partners, staff and students watched what may have been the world’s tiniest ribbon cutting that demonstrated the powerful capabilities of the lab’s new high-power electron microscopes. Castronoves, who’s racing team is sponsored by OCCAM partner Hitachi, helped etch the centre’s name into a tiny “ribbon” at the nano-scale, with each letter nearly 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
Though it is housed in the Departments of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and Materials Science & Engineering, the centre is open to users from throughout the Faculty, U of T, nine affiliated hospitals, and external partners. The emphasis is on collaborative and multidisciplinary projects, with over 350 different research programs anticipated annually involving academic researchers and private companies. “This is expensive equipment to purchase and operate, but the new centre makes it available to everyone, from industry to academia,” said Mims. “What I am most excited about is the breadth of the impact this research will have, from studying fruit fly abdomens to space materials.”
Three big (and small) ideas enabled by OCCAM:
1. Car accidents that no longer kill people
“We have the technology today to make vehicles so safe that car accidents no longer kill people,” shared Professor Perovic. But if we have the means, why aren’t we using them? According to Perovic, the answer is cost – cost of materials and cost of manufacturing. That’s why, through OCCAM, he has partnered with Toronto-based Integran Technologies to develop newer, inexpensive methods of boosting vehicle safety and efficiency.
Integran is the only company in the world that can coat plastic and carbon fibre with nano-metals, allowing them to make virtually any material significantly stronger with one coating. While they are continuing to find ways of reducing cost, Integran’s technology has the potential for impact beyond the auto industry, from better spacecraft to lighter and more durable bicycles.
2. Stopping blood clots with non-stick nano-materials
Blood clots are essential in healing cuts, but they can be deadly for those requiring medical catheters (tubes that carry medicine or drain fluids in the body). Dangerous clots can form around the tubes in a process called thrombosis – an affiliction that leads to approximately 50,000 deaths in the United States each year.
To reduce the risk of blood clots, Professor Paul Santerre (IBBME), Jeannette Ho (ChemE/ IBBME MASc 9T7) and a group of other medical scientists and engineers have designed a method of producing catheters that include fluorinate oligomers, the same molecules that make frying pans non-stick. Already commercially available through licensing from Santerre’s spin-off company Interface Biologics, their invention has shown to reduce the rates of thrombosis by up to 75 per cent.
“OCCAM gives us access to tools and expertise that a small lab like us wouldn’t normally have,” said Roseita Esfand, director of research and development at Interface. “Collaborations such as this will help us to bring our technologies and products from bench to human.”
3. Solar fuels – If trees can do it, we can do it
Professor Ben Hatton (MSE) and group of multidisciplinary researchers are using OCCAM’s advanced equipment to design nano-materials that mimic the photosynthetic processes of plants. While plant photosynthesis uses the sun’s rays to produce sugars and carbohydrates, Hatton’s lab is hoping to make materials that produce methane and other gases.
This technology could be used to power vehicles, houses and more – and to store energy we aren’t using for later consumption. In doing so, they could reduce, and even reverse, the detrimental impacts of fossil fuels. “We’re still in early development stages,” explained Hatton. “But we’re excited by the advances and resources that OCCAM will provide, and we look forward to making our technology better and more efficient.”
“If trees can do it,” he said, “we can do it.”