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March | mars 2012

Canadian Chemical News | L’Actualité chimique canadienne

Crime Busters

The Forensic Science of Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry

EcoSynthetix's Starchy Start-up Solutions for CO2

Chemical Institute of Canada

Table of Contents

March | mars Vol.64, No./No3

Features Chemistry




Isotope sleuths

A crime-solving isotope database­ is being compiled snip by snip across the nation­. By Tyler Irving



A Solution for Carbon Capture

C02 Solutions may have the answer to the conundrum of carbon dioxide ­emissions from industrial smokestacks. By D’Arcy Jenish

Green Sheen

EcoSynthetix has developed starch-based nanoparticles that can replace oil-based latex in consumer products such as paper. By Tyler Irving

Departments 5

From the Editor


 uest Column G By Denise Carpenter


 hemical News C By Tyler Irving


Society News


ChemFusion By Joe Schwarcz

march 2012 CAnadian Chemical News   3

discount members for CIC/CSChE

Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering

Advance your professional knowledge and further your career Risk Assessment Course Process Safety Course May 30-31, 2012 Calgary, Alta. September 19-20, 2012 Toronto, Ont. Risk Concepts • Integrated Risk Management • Risk ­Management Process • Techniques for Risk Analysis •­ ­Qualitative ­Techniques: Hazard Identification with Hands-on Applications • Index ­Methods • SVA, LOPA • ­Quantitative Techniques • Fault and Event Trees • Fire, Explosion, Dispersion Modeling • ­Damage/Vulnerability Modeling • Risk Estimation • Risk Presentation • Risk ­Evaluation and ­Decision-Making • Risk Cost Benefit ­Analysis • Process ­Safety Management with reference to US OSHA PSM Regulations • Emergency Management with ­Reference to ­Environment Canada Legislation • Land Use Planning • Risk ­Monitoring • ­Stakeholder Participation

May 28-29, 2012 Calgary, Alta. September 17-18, 2012 Toronto, Ont. Accident Theory and Model • Loss of Containment • Physical and ­Process Hazards • Runaway Reactions • Fire • ­Explosion • Toxic ­Exposure • Dust • Equipment Failure • Human Factors Inherently Safer Designs • Engineering Practices • Plant and Equipment Layout • ­Facility Siting • Relief and Blowdown • Circuit Isolation • Electrical Area Classification • ­Instrumentation and Safety Instrumented ­Systems • Fire Protection • Process Safety Management • ­Leadership and Culture • Hazard Assessment and Risk Analysis • ­Operating­ ­Procedures and Training • Management of Change • ­Pre-Startup Safety Review • ­Mechanical Integrity • ­Emergency Preparedness • Management ­Review and Continuous Improvement

Course outline and registration at Continuing Professional Development presented by the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) and the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering (CSChE).

FRom the editor

Executive Director

Roland Andersson, MCIC


Roberta Staley

Editor (on leave)

Jodi Di Menna

news editor

Tyler Irving, MCIC

contributing editors

Peter Calamai Tyler Hamilton Tim Lougheed

art direction & Graphic Design

Krista Leroux Kelly Turner

Society NEws

Bobbijo Sawchyn, MCIC Gale Thirlwall

Marketing Manager

Bernadette Dacey

Marketing Coordinator

Luke Andersson, Andersson MCIC


Michelle Moulton

Finance and Administration Director

Joan Kingston

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Angie Moulton

Editorial Board

Joe Schwarcz, MCIC, chair Milena Sejnoha, MCIC Bernard West, MCIC

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xactly one year ago, a 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami that travelled 10 kilometres inland. Other than the loss of life, the most devastating effect of the tsunami was the damage to the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Swamped electrical generators failed, sparking explosions and meltdowns at three reactors, which spewed radioactive material into the air. Residents within a 10-kilometre radius were evacuated. Denise Carpenter, CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, who penned this month’s Guest Column, addresses post-Fukushima concerns about the safety of Canadian nuclear power plants. Carpenter is unequivocal: Yes, she says, Canadian plants are safe. “If the tsunami hadn’t happened, there would not have been a nuclear crisis,” she writes. As Carpenter points out, measures were taken following the disaster to assess nuclear plant systems and operations in Canada to ensure they were sound. However, the question remains: how can we truly know that the facilities are impervious to devastating acts of nature? Equally important, how do we ensure that radiation waste — 240,000 tonnes globally and 44,000 tonnes in Canada — can be safely contained for 250,000 years, the time needed to decay? While the debate around nuclear energy continues, Canadian companies like CO2 Solutions, which is featured in this issue, are helping make fossil fuels, if not clean, at least a bit less sooty. CO2 Solutions has devised a new use for the natural enzyme carbonic anhydrase, employing it to capture and sequester carbon dioxide — an effective way to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions until more renewable sources of energy are found. Other Canadian companies are showing equal ingenuity in helping reduce our carbon footprint. EcoSynthetix has devised a natural alternative to the oil-based shiny coating on paper, an innovation that highlights the fact that the odyssey towards a carbon-free world requires innovation in many areas. Finally, it comes as no surprise to chemists that not all rare isotopes are dangerous. Some are even useful — helping solve crime. The remarkable tale of a particularly novel application of isotope ratio mass spectrometry is detailed in “Isotope Sleuths,” a story that would have entertained even the likes of detective and sometime chemist Sherlock Holmes.

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march 2012 CAnadian Chemical News   5

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"Green, Clean and Sustainable” Seminar and 2012 SCI/CIC Awards Dinner Thursday, March 29, 2012 | Hyatt Regency Toronto The Canadian section of the Society of Chemical Industry (SCI) and the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) will be hosting  an afternoon seminar series followed by the annual awards ceremony and dinner. The seminar will feature leaders from industry who will speak on a range of topics relating to green ­chemistry and engineering­, followed by an awards dinner in recognition of those who have made outstanding achievements in service, industry and leadership. Join us to participate in the seminar series and to celebrate the success of the 2012 award winners.

To register, please visit:

For more information, please contact or call Michelle Moulton at (613)232-6252 ext. 229.

guest column

Political fallout from the Fukushima disaster


mmediately following the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi station one year ago this month, the nuclear industry in Canada and around the world was subject to intense scrutiny. As CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, I am regularly asked if nuclear power in Canada is safe. Each time I answer with complete certainty — yes, it is. We all recall the details: on March 11 a massive earthquake occurred off the northeast coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami that penetrated several miles inland. Thousands were killed and property, services and infrastructure destroyed. Damage was in the billions of dollars. In the path of these forces was the six-unit Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Three of its units were already shut down. The other three units were operating. As the quake was detected, these units automatically shut down. About an hour later, waves as high as 14 metres flooded the site, disabling all but one of the plant’s in-service emergency diesel generators that provided power for cooling the units. With little on-site, back-up power and with all off-site power disabled by the quake, the units could not be adequately cooled, resulting in core damage. What sometimes gets lost in the telling is that the operating units at Fukushima did exactly what they were supposed to do: they shut down as soon as the earthquake was detected. The problem came when the tsunami hit the plant, causing a loss of power. If the tsunami hadn’t happened, there would not have been a nuclear crisis. And our industry thinks it’s important that people understand that.

Soon after the disaster struck, nuclear operators in Canada launched a thorough assessment of their own systems and operations to confirm they were safe. This included looking at back-up power systems and the ability of nuclear plants to withstand natural disasters that might occur here. Last October, the Canadian Nuclear Safety commission released the Fukushima Task Force Report. It concluded that all Canadian nuclear power plants are safe, designed to withstand conditions similar to those that triggered the Fukushima disaster. Still, it’s important for the nuclear industry internationally to share valuable lessons learned from the tragedy in Japan and ensure that safety standards and policies reflect current findings. Canada has high-quality uranium deposits and a highly developed base of nuclear technologies, including power generation, medicine, food safety, mining and processing and materials science. The nation as a whole has 17 operational CANDU reactors that supply 15 per cent of all electricity in the country and more than 50 per cent of Ontario’s electrical needs. The Ontario government sees this role continuing, calling for the addition of two new units and for the mid-life refurbishment of 10 existing reactors in the province. Nuclear units are also installed in New Brunswick (where a mid-life refurbishment is nearing completion) and in Quebec (where a refurbishment decision is due in the near future). Refurbishing CANDUs at mid-life is popular among utilities that operate the units, as it is a minimal carbon-emissions option that generates large numbers of highly skilled, highly paid jobs for

By Denise Carpenter

a period of several years. Refurbishing these nuclear units is one of the most effective ways to use public dollars to reduce carbon emissions, maintain generating capacity and create jobs. Nuclear power is very important for Canada’s future, as it is an energy alternative to fossil fuels. But power generation is only one of the many great things about nuclear power. Our nuclear industry provides a broad spectrum of products and services that benefit not only Canadians but people around the world. Nuclear science provides nuclear medicine and food safety technologies. Innovation in nuclear science is also being applied to address a number of societal challenges such as public health and transportation. Our nuclear industry is made up of more than 70,000 Canadians employed directly or indirectly in exploring and mining uranium, generating electricity, advancing nuclear medicine and promoting Canada’s worldwide leadership in science and technology innovation. Through the efforts of these Canadians, our nuclear industry is a $6.6 billion annual industry, ­contributing $1.5 billion in tax revenues and $1.2 billion in export revenues. Fukushima was a tragedy that caused enormous loss of life and property to Japan. The international nuclear industry is working together to prevent such an event from ever happening again, helping to ensure that the world continues to benefit from nuclear energy. Denise Carpenter is the president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, which promotes the development and growth of nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes.

march 2012 CAnadian Chemical News   7

Chemical News

By Tyler Irving Business

World’s first nanocrystalline cellulose plant opens CelluForce, a joint venture of ­ omtar and FPInnovations, has D ­officially opened the world’s first ­demonstration-scale plant to produce nanocrystalline ­cellulose. On hand for the ceremony were (L to R) Pierre Lapointe,  CEO of FPInnovations, Jean Moreau, CEO of CelluForce and John Williams, CEO of Domtar.

In late January, CelluForce, a joint venture between Domtar ­Coporation and FPInnovations, officially opened the world's first ­demonstration-scale plant to produce nanocrystalline ­cellulose (NCC) in Windsor, Que. For decades, chemists have known how to hydrolyse cellulose from wood pulp, using strong acids to destroy the amorphous regions and leave behind the crystalline ones. The nanocrystals produced seem to have endless benefits, including a tensile strength greater than steel and interesting optical properties. They are renewable, biodegradable and non-toxic and can be incorporated into a wide range of products, from paints to golf balls, to improve viscosity, strength and durability. But commercial application has been held back by the availability of the product. “Several years ago, we began discussions with potential clients,” says Richard Berry, vice-president and chief technology officer at CelluForce. “When we told them how much was available, we saw it was going to be impossible to go forward with any sort of pre-commercial trial so we had to scale up,” Berry says. That meant designing a plant that could efficiently recycle the spent acids and provide both high yield and quality. It took several years and $36 million, most of it from the federal and provincial ministries of natural resources, but the results live up to expectations. The Windsor plant converts more than 50 per cent of the commercial pulp feedstock into NCC and total production can reach a tonne per day. “This mill will allow us to go into market tri-

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als in different sectors,” says Jean Moreau, president and CEO of CelluForce. “By closely watching those results, we aim to build a significant market that will allow us to justify new commercial plants,” Moreau says. CelluForce has already entered into 15 collaboration agreements with companies around the world. Moreau estimates that in three to five years the company will have one or more commercial plants and could be producing up to 10,000 tonnes of NCC a year. Both Berry and Moreau are keenly aware of the implications commercial NCC has for Canada’s forest products industry, which has been pummelled by a number of ­catastrophes in the past decade. “We’re not the messiah,” says Moreau, “but NCC is a kind of hidden secret that the forest can bring to the ­market.” Berry agrees: “This is one of several elements in a toolbox. A bio-pathways approach will take us into the 21st century and enable us to do more with the forest than has ever been ­possible ­before.”

Chemical News Canada's top stories in the chemical sciences and engineering POLICY AND LAW

Report calls for new approach for ­chemical regulators Integrating Emerging Technologies into Chemical Safety ­Assessment, a report recently released by the Council of Canadian ­Academies, urges chemical regulators to modernize the tests and protocols they use. Currently accepted protocols to determine health effects of ­industrial chemicals such as toxicity and carcinogenicity were developed decades ago. They primarily consist of in vivo studies using a small number of test animals exposed to a relatively high dose of a given chemical. The limitations of this approach are well known: such studies only examine outcomes and say little about the biochemical mode of action by which they occur. As a result, it can be difficult to extrapolate the results of these studies to humans. Modern techniques can give a more complete picture of a chemical’s effects. For example, computer (in silico) models can compare the structure of chemicals about which little is known to ones that have been extensively studied. This screens for those chemicals most likely to cause health risks. In vitro studies use cell cultures to examine­how particular biochemical pathways are affected. “The new approach focuses on how it happens, rather than what happens,” says Leonard Ritter, professor emeritus in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph and chair of the 15-member ­expert panel that wrote the report. “It’s taking advantage of everything­we’ve learned in

the last 30 years to solve the same ­basic question: is a given chemical likely to have human health effects or not?” In addition to giving a more complete picture, some of the new techniques allow for high-throughput screening, which could help deal with the huge backlog of industrial chemicals for which data on human health effects is poor. For example, in 2006 Ottawa listed more than 4,000 data-poor chemicals that require further ­attention from toxicologists. “There simply isn’t enough capacity to deal with that many substances,” says Ritter. “These new methods can move through a large number of chemicals much more efficiently­.” While some of the new techniques are already in use, others require further development. In the report, Ritter and the rest of the panel have outlined a detailed roadmap for integrating the new techniques into existing regulatory frameworks. Personnel will need to be trained to use new methods and communication is required to ensure that the public accepts the new science. Ritter believes it is up to all stakeholders: government, academia, advocacy groups and the public, to ensure these new techniques are adopted and ­chemical regulations are improved. “The measure of success will ultimately be ­enthusiasm,” says Ritter. “It’s not going to happen unless there’s a broadly based interest in making it happen.”


Susanne Golby

Microbial biofilms could treat oil sands wastewater

The Calgary Biofilm Device was used to transfer a complex microbial biofilm community from oil sands wet tailings onto synthetic supports. If successful, laboratory-grown biofilms could serve as a seed culture for a bioreactor capable of treating oil sands process water.

Biofilms are diverse communities of microorganisms bound together with extracellular polymeric substances, commonly called slime. They are remarkably tough and found everywhere from the scum on ship hulls to the plaque on teeth. A team of Canadian­ researchers is learning to exploit the toughness of biofilms to help remove contaminants from oil sands tailings water. Water in oil sands tailings ponds is contaminated with organic compounds such as napthenic acids as well as heavy metals like copper, strontium, vanadium and mercury. Microbes naturally present in the water can degrade the organics but their growth is inhibited by the heavy metals, which increase in concentration each time the water is recycled. Howard Ceri, Raymond Turner and their research groups at the University of Calgary believe that growing as part of a biofilm can buffer toxin-degrading microbes from the harsh conditions and allow them to survive at much higher metal concentrations. But studying biofilms is challenging, as most microorganisms are not easily grown in the laboratory. “Traditionally, people have isolated planktonic microorganisms and then tried to grow them as a biofilm,” says Turner. “We asked, could we grow the community directly as a biofilm?” The team took samples of biofilms from tailings ponds and transferred them onto polystyrene supports in petri dishes. Using denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) they were able to show that of the more than 800 community members in the original biofilm, somewhere between 300 and 500 remained in lab-grown biofilm. “It doesn’t necessarily include the whole community, but it’s a good representation,” says Turner. Recent experiments have shown that this community is able to survive and degrade organic contaminants at heavy metal concentrations up to 100 times higher than individual species. The team is collaborating with Tong Yu and Yang Liu, environmental engineers at the University of Alberta. They plan to use this lab-grown biofilm as a seed for a bioreactor that will speed up the treatment of oil sands process-affected water. “Our goal is to have a bench-scale reactor using this seed culture by the end of our three-year project, because nobody has demonstrated feasibility on an industrial scale yet,” says Yu.

march 2012 CAnadian Chemical News   9

Chemical News Environment

Anthropogenic nitrogen­found in remote­lakes

Even isolated lakes, like this one in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, are showing the nitrogen signature of human activity­in their sediments.

Limnologists usually aren’t surprised to find chemical evidence of human activity in lakes with large populations nearby. But a group of Canadian and American researchers have found nitrogen-based evidence of anthropogenic emissions at the bottom of remote North American lakes, far from human habitation. Reactive nitrogen: ammonia, nitrates and nitrites, enters lake water via soil leachate and is absorbed by microorganisms naturally present in lake water, forming the basis of the aquatic food web. It is produced by other microbes in the soil and through the breakdown of organic matter. But human activity can also produce reactive nitrogen: it’s a common product of fossil fuel combustion and the basis of fertilizer production. Scientists can tell the source by looking at the ratios of the natural isotopes of nitrogen: biologically derived nitrogen tends to have a slightly higher ratio of 15N to 14N than anthropogenic nitrogen. Peter Leavitt of the University of Regina and his colleagues collected sediment cores from a variety of remote and pristine lakes from across North America. Of the 33 lakes, 25 showed a drop in the amount of 15N beginning from the late 19th century and accelerating in the 20th century, exactly the time when industrial activity began to produce large amounts of nitrogen. “This suggests that low levels of nitrogen pollution are endemic across much of the northern hemisphere, even in areas far from human populations,” says Leavitt. The effects so far have been minimal, but could influence lake ecology in the future. In the next few decades, humans are expected to dramatically increase nitrogen fertilizer production to feed a growing global population. “Microbes in the lake are like the foundation for a house,” says Leavitt. “By stimulating them with all this reactive nitrogen, we’re starting to shake the foundation.” The research is published in Science.


Diabetes drug may help prevent cancer Metformin is one of the world’s most widely prescribed antidiabetic­ drugs. Now, Canadian research has shed light on how it may also act to combat cancer. In 2005, an epidemiological study by researchers at the University­ of Dundee showed that diabetics being treated with metformin had significantly lower cancer rates than those on other treatments. This intrigued McGill University oncologist­ Michael Pollack, who in turn contacted biochemist Gerardo­ Ferbeyre at Université de Montréal. Ferbeyre and his colleagues­research how human cells defend themselves against genetic mutations that can cause cancer. One common cause of these mutations is reactive

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oxygen species (ROS) produced by mitochondria as a byproduct of metabolism. These reactive chemicals can damage DNA. In vitro studies showed that unlike antioxidants, which prevent­cancer by reacting with ROS before they can damage DNA, metformin­ appears to prevent mitochondria from forming ROS in the first place. “I use the analogy of a leaky faucet,” says Ferbeyre. “Using an antioxidant is like trying to clean up the water with a towel. Metformin would be like turning off the tap.” This was further­ demonstrated with an in vivo experiment using the pesticide paraquat, which causes overproduction of ROS. Mice treated with paraquat and metformin survived significantly longer than those treated with paraquat only.

Chemical News Canada's top stories in the chemical sciences and engineering Earth Sciences

Mercury’s role in the late Permian ­extinction The late Permian extinction (LPE) wiped out more than 90 per cent of ocean life and 70 per cent of life on land. Now, geochemical analyses of mercury from the Canadian Arctic are providing a picture of how it happened and how life finally recovered. Many scientists believe the LPE was caused by an enormous volcanic eruption at the end of the Permian period, about 252 million years ago. The explosion created the Siberian Traps, huge deposits of igneous rocks in what is now Russia. But the blast would have also burned through layers of coal trapped in the rocks above the volcanoes. Last summer, a team from the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) and the University of Calgary found evidence of coal ash in sedimentary Permian rocks from the Buchanan Lake area, on Axel Heiberg Island in Nunavut. “In the Late Permian, this site was directly downwind of Siberia,” says GSC research scientist Hamed Sanei. The ash, says Sanei, would have been devastating on its own, but since coal combustion is a major source of mercury emissions, as are volcanoes in general, the team opted to test for mercury as well. Using atomic absorption spectrometry, Sanei and his colleagues found up to a four-fold increase in the mercury content of the sediments immediately after the eruptions. Besides being toxic, this influx would have overwhelmed the natural mechanism for stripping mercury out of ocean water, which is to combine with organic matter bound for ocean sediments. The team theorized that the anoxic conditions created by the stressed-out ecosystem, combined with sulphides from the ash, led to the creation of mercury sulphides, which precipitated out of the water. “Without organic matter, sulphides became a kind of emergency release valve,” says Sanei. The sediments show that within a very short time, mercury levels had been reduced enough to allow organic matter to regain a foothold. Sanei emphasizes that mercury was one factor out of many that contributed to the LPE. The team is continuing to test for other elements to help understand more about how life on Earth managed to recover, even after its most devastating setback. The research is ­published in Geology.

Despite these promising results, Ferbeyre cautions that more r­ esearch is needed. “Even if the drug has been used for many years, we need the pilot studies on populations at risk before recommending­ it to the general public.” He adds that one such trial: using metformin to increase the efficiency of chemotherapy­, will be starting at the University of Toronto. Ferbeyre and Pollack’s­results are published in Cancer Prevention Research. Metformin, pictured here in molecular form, is one of the world's most commonly prescribed antidiabetic drugs. It appears to interfere­with the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in mitochondria. The mechanism could explain­ the observation, first made in 2005, of reduced cancer rates among metformin users.

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Isotope sleuths Two University of Ottawa researchers are building a national­crime-solving database­- one haircut at a time. By Tyler Irving


n June of 2001, a nurse working at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal was walking to her car when she made a gruesome discovery. A human skull lay in the grass just behind the vehicle’s rear bumper. Police found the rest of the body up a small rise in the wooded area behind the parking lot. One of the corpse’s arms was hooked around a tree as if to break a fall. Investigators determined that the body was female, wearing hospital clothing, and had lain in the woods for about two years. Hospital records, however, did not show any missing patients and DNA extracted from the body didn’t match any records the police had on file. For years, the quest to identify ‘Madame Victoria,’ as the body came to be known, met with dead ends. Finally, in 2010, police contacted University of Ottawa researchers Michelle Chartrand and her supervisor Gilles St-Jean. They are experts in isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IR-MS), an old analytical chemistry technique that is finding new applications in the world of forensic science. Together, Chartrand and St-Jean are building Canada’s first national isotope database, a tool that

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could provide the clues needed to crack unsolved cases like that of Madame Victoria. Chartrand is a chemist and St-Jean a geochemist in the Department of Earth Sciences. IR-MS was first developed by earth scientists in the 1950s, as a means of accurately determining the environments of various geological formations. Later, as the technology improved and became cheaper, it was picked up by anthropologists looking at ancient human remains. Only in the past decade or so have forensic scientists begun to realize the value of

Chemistry | forensic science

Brent Gow

With a quick snip, Michelle Chartrand takes a sample of hair from Gilles St-Jean. The University of Ottawa researchers are compiling a Canada-wide database of stable isotope ratios from hair which will help solve crimes by providing information about location and diet.

IR-MS in tracking modern human movements. “Around 2006, I was asked by the RCMP to come and give a presentation on how stable isotopes could be used in the forensic environment,” says St-Jean. “They got a little excited, because you can use this for tracking all kinds of stuff.” Most elements exist naturally as a mixture of isotopes. A well-known example is carbon: about 99 per cent exists as 12C, one per cent as 13C and ultra-trace amounts as unstable 14C, which has a half-life of 5,730 years. Archaeologists looking at ancient bones are often concerned with 14C, since its abundance gives an idea of a sample’s age. Scientists looking at modern samples, on the other hand, focus on 13C. That’s because slight variations in the abundance of this isotope can give important clues as to a person’s diet. It turns out that photosynthesis has a small but measurable energetic preference for the lighter isotope, which means that the carbon that makes up plants is ever so slightly depleted in 13C compared with atmospheric CO2. The exact ratio varies even between plants with slightly different methods of photosynthetic carbon fixing: so-called C4 plants like corn and sugar cane are not quite as depleted in 13C as C3 plants like barley and potatoes. When humans eat those plants — or consume animals that have eaten them — that same isotopic signature gets built into our biomolecules, including our hair. The upshot of this is that analysing isotope ratios in a person’s hair tell you something about what they ate.

Stable isotopes exist for many elements and each tells its own story. With the 15N isotope, for example, it’s possible to tell a vegetarian from a non-vegetarian, or to detect if someone has changed their eating habits over time. And, depending on regional dietary norms, this information can sometimes be traced to a particular area of the globe. Like nitrogen and carbon, sulphur is also an indicator of diet, since we get this element from food. Hydrogen and oxygen, on the other hand, come from the water we drink. As water vapour from the ocean condenses into clouds and eventually rain, the heavier isotopes precipitate first. This means that, generally speaking, rainwater becomes depleted in heavy isotopes as it moves from west to east across Canada. In reality it’s more complicated, as the exact ratio for any particular site depends on the local climate, including average temperature, air pressure and a host of other factors. Nevertheless, it’s possible to tell the difference between water from northern and southern areas from the isotope ratios of hydrogen and oxygen. By extension, one can distinguish between people who drank water from those areas. “We can’t say they lived on this exact street in this specific town,” says Chartrand. “But we can, for example, eliminate half the country, which could be quite useful.” The problem is that a single sample on its own tells you almost nothing. “Forensic scientists are association experts; we look at the unknowns and compare them to knowns,” says Ron Fourney, director of National Services and Research with the RCMP.

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“In order to do that, you have to develop some kind of database.” After St-Jean’s presentation, the RCMP funded a small pilot study, testing to see whether isotope ratios in hair from a single area changed with time, and whether it would be possible to see differences between people from regions. The news on both counts was good; the ratios were indeed constant throughout the year and samples from different areas were dissimilar enough to tell apart. “We were pleasantly surprised,” says Fourney. “It turns out you can actually separate certain areas a little more than we expected.” Four years ago, Fourney’s group applied for federal funding from the Chemical, Biological, Radiological-Nuclear, and Explosives (CBRNE) Research and Technology Initiative (CRTI). That funding would send Chartrand across the country, looking for volunteers to provide hair samples representative of each region. Cutting hair isn’t usually in the job description of a postgraduate researcher, but Chartrand has warmed to her role. “I’m a big believer in giving a good haircut,” she says. “For people with short hair, we normally take the bottom onehalf to one centimetre. For longer hair, we cut locks from the scalp. There’s nothing worse than a bad haircut.” Over the past four years, Chartrand and her summer student

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(1) Capsules made of tin or silver are used to contain ground-up hair samples bound for the elemental­ analyzer­and isotope­ratio mass spectrometer. (2)This device in used to line up hairs and cut them into shorter lengths, each one representing a snapshot in time. The latest version­ constructed for the G.G Hatch Stable Isotope Laboratory at the University of Ottawa has a resolution­of 0.5 cm, which represents about­two weeks of growth.

tyler Irving


Jonathan Mayo have driven more than 40,000 kilometres — equivalent to roughly once around the earth — and given more than 500 haircuts. This represents at least two samples from each city they visited. Ideal candidates were those who didn’t travel much and who ate a relatively stable diet of local foods, information that was determined by administering a questionnaire. In addition to the haircuts, the pair took samples of other chemical tracers to be analysed in other labs and added to the database. These included samples of drinking water, soil and pollen. “Moss is a really good collector of modern pollen,” says Chartrand. “I got to the point where I could spot moss anywhere.” At the end of each summer, Chartrand returned to the G.G. Hatch Stable Isotope Laboratory in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Ottawa to begin the analysis. Individual samples were pulverized using a ball mill, and weighed out into aliquots. For hydrogen analysis, you need about 300 micrograms; for carbon or nitrogen it’s a little more. Each aliquot is placed in either a tin foil capsule (for carbon, nitrogen, or sulphur analysis) or a silver capsule (for hydrogen and oxygen) and fed into an elemental analyser coupled to the mass spectrometer. Traditional mass spectrometry (MS) works by breaking samples down into their most basic forms, ionizing them and then using electromagnets to fling the resulting charged particles through a vacuum chamber toward a detector. By measuring the electromagnetic field to which they were exposed and the time it took them to fly through the

Brent Gow


chamber, it is possible to calculate a characteristic mass-to-charge ratio for each particle. These numbers are then compared with known standards to determine the identities and concentrations of each element in the sample. But using regular MS methods to pick out isotopes like 13C can be difficult because these particles are so low in abundance compared to their lighter 12C brethren. Isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IR-MS) solves this problem by using multiple detectors at the far end of the chamber, each calibrated to a different mass-to-charge ratio and allowing for simultaneous detection of both 12C and 13C. This is important because the variations in the 12C to 13C ratio are on the parts per millions (ppm) to sub-ppm level — every molecule counts. IR-MS machines are not uncommon, but neither are they cheap. “The least expensive machine that you can buy is somewhere around $150,000, and that's just the mass spec,” says St-Jean. “To this you need to add gas chromatographs, liquid chromatographs, elemental analyzers and all kinds of peripherals.” The G.G. Hatch laboratory contains one of the highest concentrations of this type of high-end equipment in Canada. There are no less than five IR-MS analyzers, each with a range of add-ons. The staff has named each one after a Greek god, making the laboratory feel a bit like a high-tech version of Mount Olympus. For example, Zeus is optimized for analysing compounds separated by gas chromatography in real time, while Artemis and Bacchus both handle direct gas samples or perform water isotope analysis. Odysseus and Phusis are used for elemental analysis. Although all the sampling is now done it will take until the end of this year to complete the analysis and generate a searchable, geographic database that can be used by law enforcement officials. But even before the database is complete, the technique is providing clues in certain cases, like that of Madame Victoria.

Police provided the molecular detectives with samples of the corpse’s long hair — 43 centimetres of it. The hairs were carefully lined up and sliced into segments one centimetre long, each representing about one month’s worth of growth. Performing IR-MS on each segment allowed the researchers to track Madame Victoria’s movement over time. “This woman seems to have come from a northern community and moved toward Montreal without ever going back north,” says St-Jean. “We could see up to seven different area changes in the isotope signature moving, in general, from north to south.” This information led to a string of families from northern communities coming forward to provide DNA samples. Unfortunately, to date, none of these had resulted in a positive match, and the identity of Madame Victoria remains a mystery. While DNA analysis is still the gold standard for unambiguously identifying a body, isotope ratio analysis is extremely important in narrowing the field. “People often forget that exclusion is vitally important to an investigator,” says Fourney. “Often there’s a situation where we have a large number of individuals it could be, but isotope analysis might narrow it down to five or six, and that’s when the other more refined techniques kick in. I see these systems working together to give the best possible information to an investigator.” With the completion of the new database, constant improvements in analytical chemistry and a little luck, mysteries like the identify of — and ultimately the fate of — people like Madame Victoria may one day be solved.

march 2012 CAnadian Chemical News   15

Chemistry | this text changes each issue

march 2012 CAnadian Chemical News   17

QA &

Sheen F

ew companies exemplify the shift from oil-based products to ones based on renewable biomass better than Ontario’s EcoSynthetix. This start-up has created a cost-competitive, green replacement for the oil-based latex coating that gives the glossy sheen to coated paper and paperboard products — a multi-billion dollar market. In the past year, EcoSynthetix raised $100 million in an initial public offering, opened new headquarters and a research and development office in Burlington, Ont. and hosted a tour for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. ACCN spoke with EcoSynthetix CEO John van Leeuwen about the company’s recent success and plans for the future.

ACCN How are paper coatings made today? JVL Currently, coatings are produced using a batch-based

emulsion polymerization process. Sub-micron particles of oilderived styrene butadiene (SB) latex dispersed in water are mixed with pigments such as ground calcium carbonate and clay. The latex increases the viscosity of the mixture, binds it together and allows it to fill the recesses in the paper, providing a more uniform surface. The reason people coat paper is to improve its surface characteristics and to make it smoother to print on. It allows pigment particles to adhere to the fibrous paper structure and improves the overall optical properties: whiteness, brightness, opacity and gloss.

18  L’Actualité chimique canadienne

mars 2012

EcoSynthetix is making ­starch-derived ­nanoparticles that are replacing such oil-based consumer products as ­paper ­coatings. By Tyler Irving

ACCN How did you create a starch-based replacement­ for SB latex? JVL Starch is a pretty good binder by itself but it has a high molecular weight. It’s a solution polymer, not an emulsion polymer. And native starch is not soluble in cold water, so to use it in conjunction with SB latex you need to heat it up. If you cook it, you disturb the starch granules, dissolve the polymer into water and you get something that’s fairly high in viscosity. This can be mixed with SB latex for certain paper grades. It has been done for many years but only in lower grades of paper: Grade 3, which is the typical coloured sheet cover for most magazines; Grade 4, used for the inside pages of magazines and Grade 5, which is for newspaper inserts and flyers. Grades 1 and 2 don’t use any starch at all, nor is it used in the production of coated paperboard. Grade 1 is the highest-quality paper grade, typically used for annual reports and the covers of expensive magazines. Grade 2 paper is used typically in high-end marketing materials. ACCN So this is what you’ve targeted? JVL Yes. We invented a reactive extrusion process to convert

starch from a somewhat soluble polymer into these insoluble particles, ranging in size from 50 to 150 nm. It’s a chemical and a mechanical process. The particles are no longer a solution polymer, but behave essentially as an emulsion polymer;



Business | green paper coatings

furthermore, they have unique new properties that are more akin to synthetic latex products. We’ve created a new class of materials that we call biolatex, a registered trademark, which allows us to replace the remaining SB latex in all paper grade and paperboard grades. With our process, we make our final product into a dried powder, the granules of which are agglomerates of these nanoparticles. A typical 400 micron granule of powder might contain millions of them. Because you can ship it as

a dried powder instead of a water-based emulsion, it greatly decreases the carbon footprint and cost of shipping the product relative to traditional latex binders that may only contain about 50 per cent solids. When this powder arrives on site, you put the granules in water and stir them. They disperse into nanoparticles under almost any conditions. The dispersed nanoparticles swell in size and, once they’re soft, can be used in a customer’s paper coating process. ACCN Why didn’t anyone think of this before? JVL People have been extruding starch for a long time for

wallpaper pastes or drilling muds for the oil industry. But no one until now found the right set of conditions to turn starch into nanoparticles. Typically, people are simply dissolving the starch, turning it from a solid paste into a liquid. The unique set of conditions under which we developed our process was difficult to ascertain. The process to do it on large scale was even more difficult to develop. Most importantly is that we’ve converted it from a batch process to a continuous process. The breakthrough is both in the chemistry and the mechanics of doing it. It was challenging but we succeeded in creating a final product that had the desired performance characteristics and was economical. ACCN Who made the breakthrough and how did you turn it into a company? JVL Our co-founder and executive vice-president Steven

(L to R) EcoSynthetix CEO John van Leeuwen, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Burlington MP Mike Wallace examine dry EcoSpheres during a tour last December of EcoSynthetix’s ­headquarters and research facility.

Bloembergen and I both studied chemistry at the University of Waterloo. We went our own ways but stayed friends. In 1996, we met up again. Steven had an idea for a company that would make biopolymers that were better for the ­e nvironment. So we built from this initial concept and started the company together. I provided the funding to start the research. At the time, Steven was working at the Michigan Biotechnology Institute (MBI) and they had labs, pilot plants and offices. It was a perfect setting for us, so we did the initial research there. In 2010, we started talking with the Michigan and Ontario governments. We got a much better response from the Ontario and federal governments. So we decided that long-term, it would be better to be in Canada and continue our fundamental R & D and product development efforts in Ontario.

march 2012 CAnadian Chemical News   19

ACCN What kind of starch do you use? JVL Almost any kind: corn, potato, tapioca,

or wheat starch. There are also some waste starches available and we will focus more on that in the future. In both our current locations, corn starch is readily available so we’re using that. As we get ready to put a plant in Asia or Latin America, for example, we could use something like tapioca starch.

EcoSpheres are nanoparticles made of interwoven starch polymer chains, ranging in size from 50 to 150 nm. These particles thicken and bind the coating that makes paper surfaces smooth and shiny, ­replacing oil-based latex.

ACCN What are the challenges in g ­ etting paper­coaters to adopt this new ­technology? JVL Manufacturers in developing countries seem more willing

ACCN What is the company like today? JVL Two years ago, we had 10 staff. By the end of 2011, we

had 40. We’ll continue to explore the paper and paperboard markets and other unrelated areas where our biolatex binders can bring value. We aim to have about 60 people in the next few years. Recently we opened a new, 34,000 ­square-foot facility in Burlington. It has our headquarters and labs for product development, coating testing and paper testing. It also contains a pilot plant, a beautiful facility for producing new biolatex products. That will be used to develop new grades of biolatex materials for different industry applications. Commercially, we have operations in two partner plants today, one in Tennessee and another in the Netherlands. We have a combination of contract and toll manufacturing, as well as an ability to expand. ACCN Is your biolatex competitive with SB latex? JVL Price-wise, we have a very competitive technology.

As we replace SB latex, we are finding that we can replace other chemicals that are required to go along with it: emulsion modifiers, optical brighteners, rheology modifiers (thickeners) and water retention aids. Because SB latex is hydrophobic, you need to use surfactants as well as water retention aids that hold on to the water. You don’t have to do that with our family of biolatex binders. It is a disruptive technology, in addition to being cost competitive.

20  L’Actualité chimique canadienne

mars 2012

to experiment. We launched in 2007 and got our first customer in the first quarter of 2008: Suzano, the largest paper coater in Brazil. Seventy per cent of the paper industry is now evaluating this technology and many companies have adopted it. We have customers today in seven different countries, including North America, Asia and Europe. If you look at the paper industry, the global top 10 provide more than 60 per cent of the world’s supply. Three of those top 10 are commercial with us and 10 of the top 20 are conducting trials. ACCN Do you expect your product will completely replace SB latex? JVL While SB may be near the end of its life cycle, it is a

very good product that does its job perfectly. The beauty is that our biolatex binders are compatible with the existing traditional binders, so rather than have to come up with a perfect solution, you can do a partial replacement. We started out two years ago with 25 per cent replacement. Now we’re up to, on average, 50 per cent. In the next few years we expect to get to a much higher percentage of SB substitution, probably 75 to 90 per cent. It’s a question of reaching all the properties that the SB latex has; we still need to improve to get to 100 per cent substitution rates. ACCN A lot has happened in the last year. What’s it been like for you personally? JVL It’s been a crazy roller coaster ride. I often tell my guys, make sure your seatbelts are on tight, because this is going to be exciting!

Chemical Institute of Canada | Career Services

Admission $4.95

Chemical Institute of Canada

Recruitment Zone! Presented at the National Job Fair and Training Expo April 4-5, 2012 Metro Toronto Convention Centre

The Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) and the Toronto CIC Local Section have teamed up with the National Job Fair and Training Expo to create the Chemical Institute of Canada Recruitment Zone. Chemists, chemical engineers and chemical technologists will be able to meet with a broad range of recruiting chemical companies as well as 150+ other companies at the fair. Mark the dates on your calendar and stay tuned for more information!

Interested in exhibiting? Contact

• Ontario's largest, most established and comprehensive­recruitment event • Résumé assessment • New Canadians employment consulting • Career presentations • Entrepreneurship seminars • Career services pavilion • Training and education pavilion • Employment pavilion

A Solution for

Carbon Capture Quebec’s CO2 Solutions uses carbonic anhydrase to create an enzyme that works in a s­ mokestack to remove carbon ­dioxide. This low-cost ­capture solution is key to ­meeting climate change ­legislation in Canada. By D’Arcy Jenish


hanks to an enzyme known as carbonic anhydrase, the human body is marvelously adapted to capture and release the carbon dioxide that is a natural byproduct of respiration, digestion and other physiological processes. And thanks to the efforts of Quebec City-based CO2 Solutions, carbonic anhydrase may soon be performing its magic on a grander scale and for the betterment of the planet. For the past 15 years, the company has been attempting to develop bio-technological platforms that would use the enzyme along with

22  L’Actualité chimique canadienne

mars 2012

Chemical Engineering | c02 sequestration

a variety of solvents to remove carbon dioxide — the primary gas responsible for global climate change — from industrial smokestacks. “Everyone is looking for the cheapest and most effective way to capture CO2,” says company president Glenn Kelly. “We think we’re at the forefront of that effort.” Indeed, CO2 Solutions hopes to have industrial-scale applications installed and operating as soon as 2015 and it is under considerable pressure to get to market. For one thing, others are forging ahead with competing technologies. As well, governments in jurisdictions around the world are drafting regulations or

Large electrical generating plants, like the one pictured above, are major emitters of greenhouse gases, but governments across Canada are adopting regulations or imposing carbon taxes in order to reduce such emissions.

march 2012 CAnadian Chemical News   23

imposing financial penalties on the big industrial emitters in order to curb the production of greenhouse gases. In Canada, Kelly notes, British Columbia introduced a carbon tax of $25 per tonne in 2010, Alberta has adopted a tax of $15 a tonne, Saskatchewan is considering a similar measure and Quebec plans to create a cap-and-trade system by 2013. Last August, the federal government tabled regulations stipulating that coal-fired generating plants commissioned after 2015 must keep their emissions at or below the levels of high-efficiency, gas-fired power plants. According to Kelly, four industries are responsible for 50 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada: power generation, cement production, metal fabrication and Alberta’s oil sands. CO2 Solutions has development agreements in place, or is close to signing them, with major companies in each sector. Those firms fund CO2 Solutions’s work on the technological platforms, but they will get exclusive access to the technologies once they are fully operational. “The processes are different for each industry,” Kelly says, “because the CO2 content, the flue gases, the temperatures and the flow rates differ in each.” Carbonic anhydrase is a versatile enzyme that can enhance the rate of carbon capture despite such variations in industrial processes. That holds true in nature as well. Kelly notes that the enzyme performs the same role in living organisms of all sorts: from microscopic bacteria to the biggest trees. He credits University of Laval researcher Roger Phillips with developing the idea that what works in nature might also work in an industrial setting. A branch of the Quebec government that promotes the commercialization of scientific innovation and discovery connected Phillips with a group of investors led by civil engineer Roger Blais. In 1997, the pair formed CO 2 Solutions. Phillips left the company not long after its inception, but Blais served as chairman until it went public in 2004. By then, researchers at CO2 Solutions had been able to develop a more robust form of the enzyme that was capable of withstanding the rigours of an industrial environment. They also conducted laboratory trials that confirmed that carbonic anhydrase could increase the capacity of certain solvents to strip CO2 from industrial gases. “Some of

24  L’Actualité chimique canadienne

mars 2012

the first revenue-generating work the company did was for the Department of National Defence on how to manage the CO2 produced in Canadian submarines,” says Kelly. “But as you can imagine that is a very small market.” In the years since, Kelly says, the company has been developing pilotscale models of the hardware necessary to put the concept into practice in major industries and, along the way, has acquired 24 patents with another 31 pending. As well, CO2 Solutions has contracted out the production of carbonic anhydrase to Codexis of Redwood, Calif., which describes itself as a “world leader in evolving natural enzymes into super enzymes.” CO2 Solutions has developed a closed loop, post-combustion system in which flue gases are pumped into an absorber column before they reach a smokestack. The gases flow upward through a descending solution of water, carbonic anhydrase and one of three different solvents: tertiary amines, carbonates or amino acids. These solvents will capture carbon dioxide on their own, but at such a slow rate that a huge absorber column would be required to handle the volumes of CO2 that a major industrial emitter produces every day. Carbonic anhydrase acts somewhat like the performance-enhancing drugs that have become the scourge of the sporting world. It is a catalyst that boosts the capacity of the solvents to absorb the CO2 in the gases. By the time the solution has reached the bottom of the absorber column it is rich in CO2. It is then pumped to an

Richard Daigle and Julie Gingras prepare a solution containing­ solvents and the enzyme carbonic anhydrase, which enhances the rate of carbon capture from smokestack emissions­.

adjacent stripper column and here the solvents deliver an advantage. Given that they are slow to absorb carbon dioxide — without the boost provided by carbonic anhydrase — they are also quick to release the CO2 upon the application of a minimal amount of heat. At that point the CO2 can be captured, compressed and stored. Meanwhile, the clean solution is pumped back to the absorber column to repeat the process. “The use of the carbonic anhydrase increases quite dramatically what is known as the

kinetics of capture,” Kelly notes. “The benefit of the solvents is that they don’t require much heat to release carbon dioxide so you gain on that side of the process.” Carbon capture has been a standard practice in the natural gas industry for several decades, says Kelly. Federal regulations stipulate that most of the CO2 must be stripped from the gas before it enters the Trans-Canada Pipeline system that delivers it to consumers in this country and those south of the border. In most cases, the solvent monoethanolamine (MEA) is used at gas collection and processing plants. MEA works reasonably well, but unlike the solvents proposed by CO2 solutions, it must absorb a tremendous amount of heat before it will release the CO2. In the absence of government regulations, other industries have lagged behind despite the long-held scientific consensus that CO2 is a prime contributor to global warming. “Commercial scale capture of carbon dioxide in smokestack emissions is not happening yet,” says Kelly. “There are pilot projects underway at different scales, but nobody is currently doing it on a commercial scale.”

march 2012 CAnadian Chemical News   25

3 Scrubbed Flue Gas

7 Pure CO2 (>90%) for Compression and Storage


CO2 Stripper Column

C02 Absorber Column





Rich Solvent


Steam Flue Gas with C02




Higher Heat

1) Flue gas with C02 flows into scrubber 2) CO2 absorbed by solvent 3) Scrubbed flue gas released 4) C02 rich solvent flows out 5) C02 rich solvent enters stripper column 6) Solvent heated to release C02 7) Pure C02 released for storage 8) Lean solvent returned to process start C02 rich

C02 lean

CO2 Solutions uses a form of carbonic anhydrase to enhance carbon absorption by solvents. This allows them to use less solvent overall and also save energy by replacing ­standard solvents like monoethanolamine (MEA) with ones that ­require less heat to regenerate.

That means there is a race on to get to market first with technology that works and is cost-effective, and the CO2 Solutions approach has generated plenty of serious interest. For several years, the company has had a general development and scale-up agreement with New York-based Alcoa, the world’s largest producer of primary and fabricated aluminum. Kelly says his team has conducted pilot projects at Alcoa’s smelter in Deschambault, Que. on the Lower St. Lawrence River and at its research centre in Pittsburgh. (Another is planned for a facility in Texas.) CO2 Solutions has similar agreements with a major electrical utility, a cement producer and a large company in the oil and gas

26  L’Actualité chimique canadienne

mars 2012

sector. “There are competing technologies out there, but the interest we’ve garnered speaks to the potential of our approach,” says Kelly. Indeed, Kelly believes that the company has a system that will reduce the capital expenditures and operating expenses for users. “The enzyme increases the rate of capture so the size of the equipment goes down and capital costs decrease. It also allows us to use energy-efficient solvents that don’t require a lot of heat to release the carbon dioxide once it is stripped out of the emissions. Therefore your operating costs go down dramatically.” Although there are still technical hurdles, the company’s rate of progress has increased dramatically in recent years and with it Kelly’s confidence that a good idea and a lot of hard work will soon pay dividends — for both CO2 Solutions and the environment.

 Canadian Society for Chemical Technology

Advance your professional knowledge and further your career

Laboratory Safety course May 28–29, 2012 Calgary, Alta. September 17–18, 2012 Toronto, Ont. For chemists and chemical technologists. Also relevant for anyone whose responsibilities include managing, conducting safety audits or improving the operational safety of chemical laboratories, chemical plants and research facilities.

Course outline and registration at Continuing Professional Development presented by the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) and the Canadian­Society for Chemical Technology (CSCT).

discount members for CIC/CSCT

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upcoming events

And the winner is…!

March 20–22, 2012

The Canadian Chemical News (ACCN) announces the winner of a Kindle e-reader — Michael Jansen, MCIC, of Toronto. The high school chemistry teacher’s name was drawn randomly from all ACCN readers who partook in an online survey in January. The survey was designed to assist the editorial team make further improvements to the magazine. Highlights include: • ACCN respondents are relatively young, with 60 per cent under the age of 50. They are very well educated, with about 65 per cent holding a post-graduate degree and another 30 per cent pursuing an undergraduate degree. • ACCN respondents are researchers, engineers, technologists, chemists, product development specialists and professors. They are employed in a variety of sectors, including biotechnology, oil and gas and natural resources. A third is engaged in materials science. • Readers are acutely aware of the role they play vis a vis the environment and are prepared to invest in technology with this in mind: nearly 70 per cent are considering the purchase of a hybrid vehicle. • ACCN respondents look to the magazine to provide the latest in chemical sciences as well as international discoveries and advances while expecting detailed analysis of the chemical industry. They want more stories of prominent chemists, chemical engineers, researchers and innovators. • Nearly half of respondents indicated that they want future stories to address green chemistry, renewable and clean energy as well as the history of chemistry. Readers also want information about potential employment and finding a job. The response to the survey was outstanding and ACCN thanks all participants. We look forward to fulfilling your many suggestions and story ideas. RECOGNITION

Crystal competition sparkles green

Canadian Oil Sands Network for Research and Development (CONRAD) Water Conference & Workshops Edmonton, Alta.

March 24, 2012

Southern Ontario Undergraduate Chemistry Conference (SOUSCC) University of Guelph

March 26-28, 2012

Bioindustrial Innovation Centre International Conference Sarnia, Ont.­ conference/bicnationalconference.html

March 29, 2012

SCI/CIC Seminar and Awards Dinner Toronto, Ont.

April 29–May 2, 2012

World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing Orlando, Fla.

May 26–30, 2012

95th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition Calgary, Alta.

High school students and teachers from across Canada competed to grow the best quality, largest and heaviest crystals in the annual National Crystal Growing Competition. A special category, “best green crystal,” was sponsored by Université de Québec à Chicoutimi in honour of the 2011 International Year of Chemistry. The evaluators were impressed by the final product: a good quality crystal with a lovely green hue. This year, all crystals were grown using aluminum potassium sulphate. Reagents and prizes for the winning students were supplied by the competition sponsor Anachemia Science. Students were given from Oct. 8 to Nov. 12 to grow their crystals. Regional winners were selected, followed by national judging late last December.

October 14–17, 2012

Best Overall Crystals First Place: Andrée Vigneault and Sarah Vigneault of École Mgr-Labrie, Havre-St-Pierre, Que. Second Place: Mike Van Laren of Holy Cross Secondary School, Kingston, Ont. and Brandon Phelps, Trystin Hinz and Laurence Elder of A.Y. Jackson High School, Kanata, Ont. Third Place: Judy Gagnon-Timmons of École Secondaire Natagan, Barraute, Que.


Best Quality Crystal Myriam Fiset of École Secondaire Natagan, Barraute, Que. Best Crystal from Teacher Surinder Ahitan of North Albion Collegiate Institute, Etobicoke, Ont. Best Green Crystal Luxika Paskaran, Manpreet Jodgey, Sneha Skariah and Minija Somasundaram of Middlefield Collegiate Institute, Markham, Ont.

62nd Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference Vancouver, B.C.

August 18–23, 2013

9th World Congress of Chemical Engineering (WCCE9) Seoul, South Korea

In the Canadian Society for Chemistry Board of Directors Nominations insert in the February issue of ACCN, it was incorrectly stated that Jeffrey Keillor moved in 2001 to the Chemistry Department of the University of Ottawa, where he holds a University Research Chair in Bioorganic Chemistry. In fact, he moved to U of O in 2011. in memoriam

Dr. Richard Bader, MCIC, 80, died Jan. 15, 2012 in Burlington, Ont. Mr. F. J. Cooper, MCIC, of Gormley, Ont. died Nov. 24, 2011.

march 2012 CAnadian Chemical News   29


Iodine: Jack of all trades, master of many


ention iodine and peoples’ thoughts drift to the stinging dark-brown liquid that mother would put on their scrapes when they were young. Some may even think of the potassium iodide pills that can be taken to fulfill the thyroid gland’s requirement for iodine and reduce the risk that radioactive iodide released from a nuclear accident will be absorbed. While these are important uses, the most widespread application of iodine is in the production of contrast agents for X-rays and computed axial tomography (CAT) scans. In this case, iodine is incorporated into the structure of organic molecules­, making them opaque to X-rays. In a coronary angiogram, for example, a contrast agent is injected through a catheter threaded usually from the groin into the arteries that supply the heart with oxygenated blood. The coronary arteries then become clearly outlined on X-rays and any blockage, or plaque, can be readily seen. Unfortunately, some patients experience allergic reactions resembling anaphylaxis. Symptoms include hives, itching, impaired breathing and swelling of the throat and face. Such symptoms can be countered with diphenhydramine (an antihistamine), albuterol (the classic asthma medication) and epinephrine. People who have several allergies are more prone to a reaction. The world’s largest producer of iodine is Chile, followed by Japan. In Japan, deep wells are bored to extract natural gas from underground brine

30  L’Actualité chimique canadienne

deposits. Iodine production is a welcome byproduct of this process. The brine contains sodium iodide from which iodine can be liberated by reaction with chlorine. Last year’s earthquake and tsunami put a big dent into production, causing prices to skyrocket. In Chile, iodine producers have also faced problems. Here, calcium iodate from open pit mines is converted to sodium iodate which yields iodine upon reaction with sulphur dioxide. Although this is a cheaper and more efficient process than that used in Japan, it requires a great deal of water, a problem in the Atacama desert where the world’s largest deposits of iodine are found. One of Chile’s major iodine-producing plants was shut down last year because the company had extracted water from desert wells illegally. Prices shot up as a result. It is not only the medical industry that is affected by higher iodine prices. Iodine is also used in the production of polarizing films that are used in LCD television sets. It is added to cattle feed and is widely used as a disinfectant. As Japan slowly returns to normal and a new Chilean plant with a 75-kilometre water pipeline comes into production, iodine prices will decrease. That will be welcomed by all, including manufacturers of the pen you sometimes see being used by cashiers to detect fake bills. If the mark made on paper currency turns blue, the money is counterfeit. If it stays yellow, it is not. Or so the claim goes. Actually, the story is more complicated. The pen contains a solution of iodine and iodine reacts with starch to

mars 2012

By Joe Schwarcz

form a dark blue complex. If a counterfeit bill was produced by colour photocopying a bill, it would show the tell-tale blue colour since starch is used as a filler in paper. But serious counterfeiters crank out their product on legitimate currency paper that has no starch filler. (The point becomes moot when we switch to plastic currency.) One final example is the use of the starch-iodine complex to follow the treatment of hyperhydrosis, or excessive sweating. The test can be used to assess the area involved in excessive sweating although it cannot measure the degree of sweating. A two per cent iodine solution is applied to the area, allowed to dry, then brushed with corn starch. As sweat comes to the surface. the iodine color turns dark purple as an iodine-starch complex forms in solution. Photography is used to document the progress of treatments, such as Botox, which paralyze the nerves that stimulate the sweat glands. The iodine test can also be used to determine the best time for picking apples. Slice an apple in half and dip it into an iodine solution. The flesh of overripe fruit will remain mostly white, while unripe fruit will have varying degrees of black. If the fruit is picked too early, it will keep for a long time but will never ripen properly. Picking apples that are fully ripe is optimal for flavour, but won't have much of a shelf life. So iodine can help make sure that your apple a day tastes just right. Joe Schwarcz is the director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society. Read his blog at

Canadian Society for Chemistry

95th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition Calgary, Alberta, Canada • May 26–30, 2012

Undergraduate and Graduate Student Poster Competitions Deadline:

Thursday, March 15, 2012 For details visit:

ď‚š Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering

62nd Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference

Call for


Opens: March 15, 2012 Closes: May 31, 2012 Vancouver, BC, Canada OCTOBER 14–17, 2012 Energy, Environment and Sustainability

ACCN, the Canadian Chemical News: March 2012  

Canada’s leading magazine for the chemical sciences and engineering.

ACCN, the Canadian Chemical News: March 2012  

Canada’s leading magazine for the chemical sciences and engineering.