“We have an opportunity to make our catalysis centre unique in the world by combining different types of catalysts to expand our options for renewable feedstock conversion to chemicals.”
– Tom Baker
If Tom Baker’s vision becomes a reality, sometime in the next decade the leaves we currently compost in our backyards or green bins could be diverted to a local refinery where a catalyst of Baker’s invention would help turn them into plastic bags, shampoo or perfume.
“That would be the future we envision, as we go to more and more sustainable processes,” says Baker, a University of Ottawa chemistry professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in Catalysis Science for Energy Applications. “Because now, all of the consumer chemicals we use—in plastic bags, fragrances or shampoo—all come from oil.”
Fossil fuels such as petroleum are a non-renewable resource that may have taken millions of years to form deep within the Earth. The less we use in consumer products, notes Baker, the more we can save to fuel our great-grandchildren’s future.
Baker is the director of the University’s Centre for Catalysis Research and Innovation, where he and his team of 36 researchers focus on the science of catalysis—the use of catalysts, or materials, to speed up and direct chemical reactions—to harness new sources of energy and fuel. One of Baker’s most promising projects involves using catalysts in combination with a renewable resource— biomass from trees—to produce chemicals for use in countless consumer products.
The biomass in question is lignin, a waste by-product from wood pulping that is plentiful at pulp and paper mills across the country. Baker has big plans for this common material that makes up between 20 and 30 percent of harvested wood.
“These are large macro-molecules produced by the plant as a structural element. They’re in every tree and every plant,” he explains. “Our job is to make money from lignin through chemicals and new materials.”
Baker’s research involves using a catalytic process to convert lignin’s large molecules into smaller molecules that can then be turned into value-added chemicals. “It’s an area that many chemical companies and consumer products companies are excited about,” says Baker, who received a Chemical Institute of Canada award in April for his outstanding contribution to the chemical industry. Those companies know that if they can make their products in a more environmentally sustainable way, “consumers are going to feel good about not having any endocrine disruptor molecules in their shampoo, which they are using every day,” he adds.
Baker began his research into biomass conversion while working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the famed United States government facility. That is where the University of Ottawa recruited him in 2008 to head up the Centre for Catalysis Research and Innovation, the largest multidisciplinary centre of its kind in Canada.
Under Baker’s leadership, the centre has grown and was recently awarded $11.5 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation for further expansion. “We have an opportunity to make our catalysis centre unique in the world,” he says, “by combining different types of catalysts to expand our options for renewable feedstock conversion to chemicals.”
The chemist and his team are also part of the LignoWorks Research Network, created two years ago by the federal government, and bringing together 14 professors from across Canada, three forest products companies and FP Innovations, a large forest products research lab. They will develop technologies to transform lignin into a marketable commodity that, they hope, will revitalize the declining forest products industry by expanding the chemical plant side of pulp mills.
Baker sees the potential for his catalysis work to transform the forest products industry in other countries as well, including Brazil and the Scandinavian nations. To transform his vision into reality, he has only a few more research challenges to overcome, such as how to locally process lignin at every pulp and paper plant.
That will require working with the industry to build a new business model for processing lignin. While the biomass conversion will need to occur at local pulp and paper mills, those companies will also have to market the materials.
“With a little work, we really think we can turn this industry around,” says Baker. “The more jobs we can create by expanding the chemical plant nature of the pulp mills, the better. We’d need new engineers to put in the new processes, and new chemists.”
Baker is excited by the prospect of the change catalysis science could bring to the pulp and paper industry, revitalizing a staple of the Canadian economy. “It’s really a win-win for everyone,” he says, “if we can develop this technology.” Indeed, if all goes as planned, Baker is convinced that the industry’s transformation could begin within the next five years.
by Laura Eggertson