Table of Contents
April | avril Vol.64, No./No4
Vive la crop!
Nanotech venture Vive Crop Protection of Toronto has done away with the need for volatile organic solvents while improving the delivery of pesticides. By Tyler Hamilton
A wealth of expertise and a plethora of biomass are spurring a renaissance in gasification on Canada’s West Coast. By Roberta Staley
The Amazing Gene Machine Senator Kelvin Ogilvie’s famous Gene Machine for synthesizing DNA and RNA kick-started a global biotechnology revolution. By Tyler Irving
From the Editor
uest Column G By Emily Moore
hemical News C By Tyler Irving
ChemFusion By Joe Schwarcz
april 2012 CAnadian Chemical News 3
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pen any paper today and you’ll read about a new innovation involving biotechnology. From gene therapy to hardier crops, there are few areas of life that haven’t been touched by the biotech revolution. The same is true of commodity chemicals: products once derived from oil are now being made from biomass, thanks to designer enzymes, genetically engineered organisms and advances in fermentation technology. At its heart, biotechnology is about chemistry. There is no better illustration of this than the long-lasting, international impact of a remarkable invention by one of Nova Scotia’s distinguished sons, Senator Kelvin Ogilvie. At the dawn of the 1980s, Ogilvie and a team of chemists built the Gene Machine, the first device to provide fast and inexpensive synthesis of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA) sequences. As Ogilvie humbly admits in Page 18’s story “The Amazing Gene Machine,” the invention launched the global biotechnology revolution. Our conversation with Ogilvie is a respectful look back at the roots of modern biotechnology and a lesson in how Canadian innovation can change the world, if properly nurtured. More Canadian chemical innovation can be found in the world of agricultural crop protection. Contributing editor Tyler Hamilton writes about one such innovator: nanotech venture firm Vive Crop Protection of Toronto. Vive Crop invented a polymer particle it likens to a miniature FEDEX box to deliver farm chemicals that fight fungi, weeds and pests. This eliminates the need for volatile organic solvents — a significant green leap forward in a sector known for chronic overuse of chemicals. Finally, we look at the remarkable escalation of gasification on the West Coast. The University of British Columbia is collaborating with Vancouver’s Nexterra Systems to utilize the region’s abundance of biomass to generate clean steam and electricity for powering not only UBC campus but a growing number of businesses, local as well as international. This is yet another step forward in the global clean-energy movement to help heal a polluted planet.
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april 2012 CAnadian Chemical News 5
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The future of Canada’s chemical sector is bright
he year 2012 is a milestone for me — 20 years since graduating from the Engineering Chemistry program at Queen’s University and the year that I am president of the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering (CSChE). It’s one of those years where you look back to see how far you’ve come and ahead to try to envision where things will be in another 20 years. I chose the Engineering Chemistry program because I thought polymers were fascinating. I was intrigued that you could design a material’s properties at the molecular level and also affect those properties by the way that you processed the material. At the time, there were only a handful of professors working in the area at Queen’s. Today there are more than a dozen, and the sophistication of the research area continues to amaze me. Twenty years from now, the polymeric materials and processes that are being developed in labs across the country will be used to improve our health, reduce our energy consumption and preserve our water. For my doctorate work in the 1990s, I studied reaction kinetics in the physical chemistry laboratory at Oxford. The lasers I used were massive, finicky things. The simulations I ran needed a dedicated workstation; today I could probably run them on my iPhone! The research studied a set of reactions important in atmospheric chemistry. At the time, the ozone hole was a topic of great worldwide concern, but today it seems largely a forgotten problem. The reason for this public amnesia is that the Montreal Protocol, first signed in 1987,
has been a huge science-based policy success. Data shows that the world has successfully reduced the amount of ozone-depleting substances in the atmosphere and the ozone layer is beginning to slowly recover. It is nice to imagine that in 20 years we will have been able to replicate that success with the species implicated in global warming. After my doctorate, I spent more than 10 years as a researcher at the Xerox Research Centre of Canada. During that short time, nanotechnology went from being the latest fad to an established field and “green chemistry” from slogan to a driver of research directions. The pace of change was at times astounding, as young PhDs joined the centre bringing with them the latest thinking from the research frontiers. I learned at that time that people are the only way to drive technology from university to industry — information can be passed easily, but knowledge transfer needs legs! Today I work for Hatch Engineering, a firm in the mining and metals, energy and infrastructure sectors. I find the issues that we face fascinating: how can we apply the latest technologies to industry’s most pressing needs? In the resources sector, these challenges are fundamentally linked to our social license to operate. One need only look to the high standards that are being demanded of chemical engineers in the oil sands to see that solutions will take partnership, ingenuity and transparency to be achieved. As the president of the CSChE, I feel I should be proposing some grand vision to direct us. But as I reflect on
By Emily Moore
the past 20 years, I can only conclude that any predictions that I make would be laughable. I could never have predicted the speed of computing, the accessibility of information and the new research areas that have emerged. However, I know that the journey will continue to be an exciting one as we make progress on present challenges and new opportunities emerge. So my vision for Canadian chemistry and chemical engineering is simply that we are a world leader in this field, attracting the best and the brightest, with high levels of collaboration to tackle the challenges that face us: energy, water, food security and human health. The Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) must find new ways to catalyze this journey by connecting Canadian chemists and chemical engineers with each other and to the world. In recent years, we have seen exciting developments in our conferences and great improvements in our magazine and website. New topics are emerging and new channels of communication opening up, but we need to continue to work strenuously to connect our industrial and our academic populations and to reach out together to the public. Old models may have to be put aside and new ones developed, but we are blessed to have such a strong foundation to build from. I am sure that in 20 years the CIC will look decidedly different, but I am confident that it will still be here to serve us. Emily Moore, MCIC, is the president of CSChE and Director, Technology Development, at Hatch Engineering.
april 2012 CAnadian Chemical News 7
By Tyler Irving
Sugar molecule may be key to Alzheimer’s treatment
One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease is the aggregation of a protein called tau, which in turn gives rise to neurofibrillary tangles (NFT) and impairsbrain function. A team of researchers from Simon Fraser University has shown that a specific sugar molecule attached to tau might control its aggregation and could lead to new therapeutics for Alzheimer’s. David Vocadlo and his lab have been studying the biological role of a sugar molecule called O-linked N-acetylglucosamine (O-GlcNAc), which is routinely added and removed from many proteins in the body, including tau. The team has developed small molecule inhibitors for the enzymes that add and removeO-GlcNAc from proteins and can thereby control its levels. In their latest study, the team used the inhibitors to increase the levels of O-GlcNAc in the brains of mice that are genetically predisposed to develop the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. They then compared tau protein aggregates in the brains of these mice with a control group. Mice with higher O-GlcNAc levels contained anywhere from 23 to 62 per cent fewer aggregated proteins, depending on the part of the brain examined. They also had 1.4 times the number of motor neurons and showed fewer symptoms of neurodegeneration. “This study is important because it validates the potential to generate Alzeheimer’s therapeutics,” says Vocadlo. Along
In these two sections of mouse brains, the red represents neurofibrillary tangles while the green represents the O-GlcNAc modification. Mice treated with a chemical that increases O-GlcNAC had fewer tangles and showed less neurodegeneration than a control group.
with business partner Ernest McEachern, Vocadlo has founded a spinoff company, Alectos Therapeutics, to help commercialize his inhibitors. If all goes well, inhibitors that can increase the levels of the O-GlcNAc sugar modification could be in the clinic within five years. The research is published in Nature Chemical Biology.
Oxygen semiconducts at high pressures
8 L’Actualité chimique canadienne
Many undergraduates are surprised to learn that oxygen, which they think of as a colourless gas, is blue and magnetic when condensed into a liquid. Now, a group of researchers studying solid oxygen have learned that its properties at extremely high pressures are just as surprising. Dennis Klug is a researcher at the National Research Council’s Steacie Institutefor Molecular Sciences in Ottawa. Along with an international team of collaborators, he’s been running detailed computer simulations of what happens to simple gases when they are subjected to pressures on the order of megabars — a million times higher than atmospheric pressure. The idea is that under these conditions, simple materials might gain interesting properties like superconductivity. Some could even be quench-recovered, meaning they could be returned to normal pressures without losing their new characteristics. Previous simulations have shown that there are at least five distinct types of solidoxygen, each with its own molecular structure. At about one megabar,
the practice of using inhibitors to increase O-GlcNAc as an approach with
Chemical News Canada's top stories in the chemical sciences and engineering Environment
First s atellite study of oil sands air pollution Athabasca oil sands boundary
nasa/ Environment Canada
Nitrogen Dioxide Total Column Density (x 1015 molecules/cm2) 0.5
This map was created with data from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) and shows the vertical column density of NO2 over western North America. The footprint of the oil sands extraction operations was created from mining permit data by Global Forest Watch Canada. The NO2 levels over the oil sands operations are comparable to those found over a medium-sized city.
An international team of researchers led by Environment Canada has published the first satellite-based study of air quality over Alberta’s oil sands operation. It shows that levels of certain key gases are low compared to large cities, but that like oil sands development itself, they are increasing at a substantial rate. Chris McLinden, an expert in satellite remote sensing at Environment Canada, led an international team which studied data from various atmospheric monitoring satellites, such as the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI). These satellites are equipped with absorption spectrometers which can measure the levels of air pollutants like NO2 and SO2 by analysing the wavelengths of light reflected from the earth’s surface. Over the oil sands mining region, an area about 30 kilometres by 50 kilometres, the maximum level of NO2 was 2.8 x 1015 molecules per square centimetre, while that for SO2 was 1.0 x 1016 molecules per square centimetre. McLinden says that the NO2 levels are comparable to what one would find in a medium-sized city. “In another one of our studies we looked at some coal-burning power plants. The NO2 and SO2 levels we see over the oil sands regions are about the same as what we would see over a single large power plant,” says McLinden. Given that NO2 and SO2 are common byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion, it’s not unexpected to find them near sites of industrial activity. Still, the study shows that in the period from 2005–2010, emissions of these two species increased by about 10 per cent a year. “Certainly we need to keep monitoring air quality, both from space and through other methods,” says McLinden. Satellite monitoring will be part of the new oil sands monitoring plan currently being implemented jointly by the Alberta and federal governments. The research is published in Geophysical Research Letters.
oxygen turns into a superconducting, metallic solid. Klug and his team went beyond this, reaching the kinds of pressures one would find at the centre of the earth. “Oxygen did two unexpected things,” says Klug. “First, it maintained its molecular form at pressures much higher than other simple gases, up to almost 20 megabars. Second, at pressures of about 20 megabars, it converts to a square spiral-like polymeric structure, very similar to solid sulphur. This structure has semiconducting properties.” Other materials such as sodium can change their electrical conductivity at high pressures, but Klug says the finding was surprising because it was so different from other simple gases. “Nitrogen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen are all predicted to go to nice metallic structures, but we found that oxygen is a real oddball,” he says. Klug and his team are currently collaborating with other groups who could run high-pressure shockwave experiments to synthesize the structures they have predicted. The work is published in Physical Review Letters.
april 2012 CAnadian Chemical News 9
Porous titanium leads to improved implants Titanium has long been used for medical implants due to its strength and biocompatibility. Now, researchers at the National Research Council’s Industrial Materials Institute (NRC-IMI) have created a new type of microporous titanium that could lead to even more effective implants. In 2003, Louis-Philippe Lefebvre was working on an NRCIMI project to create metal electrodes with high specific surface areas. His team hit on a method of mixing powdered metals with a polymeric binder and a chemical agent that turns into a gas around 200 C. When heated, the foaming agent decomposes and forms bubbles that are trapped by the thick polymer, like baking powder in a cake. The polymer is then removed by thermal decomposition and the resulting material heated up at
1,300-1,400 C to sinter the metal particles together and create a microporous material. Although initially focused on nickel and copper, the team realized that microporous titanium would allow bone cells to grow into the spaces of the implant, resulting in a stronger bond. “Cells are about 30 micrometres in size, so we need to have pores between 50 and 500 micrometres,” says Lefebvre. It took several years to achieve the perfect pore size distribution, as well as to ensure that the overall mechanical strength of the material was adequate. Today the porous titanium is being used by the British company Orthomed for cruciate ligament repair in dogs. Lefebvre is currently collaborating with Paul Martineau and Ed Harvey of McGill University’s Health Centre on implants for humans. One example is a screw that could be used to connect to broken parts of the scaphoid, a bone the size of a cashew in the human wrist. Scaphoid injuries often heal improperly, with the two halves of the bone failing to knit together. By using a microporous titanium screw, the group hopes to improve the success rate of treatment. “We hope that within two years we’ll be ready for commercialization,” says Lefebvre.
Bacterial polysaccharide could lead to HIV vaccine
A computer-generated image of the exterior of an HIV capsule.
10 L’Actualité chimique canadienne
The outer surfaces of human cells, bacterial cells and viruses often bear proteins that are glycosylated, that is, decorated with sugar molecules called polysaccharides. An unexpected similarity between the surface polysaccharides of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and a plant bacterium could point the way toward the world’s first vaccine to prevent AIDS. The surface of HIV has a glycosylated protein called gp120, which is heavily decorated with a type of polysaccharide called oligomannose. Although some humans can produce antibodies that bind the oligomannose sugar molecules, most cannot. This is because oligomannose sugars on HIV are so similar to the surface polysaccharides found on human cells that the immune system does not recognize them as foreign. The goal of HIV vaccine researchers is to find or create a polysaccharide that is different enough from the
Dennis Klug/National Research Council
Canada's top stories in the chemical sciences and engineering
This X-ray shows a porous titanium metal screw holding together two halves of the scaphoid, a bone in the human wrist about the size and shape of a cashew. By allowing bone cells to grow into its pores, the new material, which was developed at the National Research Council's Industrial Materials Institute, can improve the efficacyof various medical implants.
polysaccharides found on human cells to be recognized by the immune system, yet similar enough that the antibodies it generates will bind to oligomannose on HIV as well. Ralph Pantophlet heads the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases Immunology in the Faculty of Health Science at Simon Fraser University, but his previous work involved studying surface polysaccharides in bacteria. Acting on a hunch, he emailed some of his former colleagues asking if they had seen any bacterial surface polysaccharides that resembled HIV-oligomannose. By sheer coincidence, a researcher in Italy named Cristina De Castro had recently isolated a new polysaccharide from a plant bacterium called Rhizobium radiobacter. De Castro sent a sample to Pantophlet, who was surprised to discover that it was bound by a human antibody to oligomannose. “I thought we might find something that looked a bit like oligomannose on HIV, but that we would then need to chemically tweak it to make it more to our liking,” says Pantophlet. “But to find a natural product that was so close was just amazing.” Pantophlet and his team have tried injecting heat-killed Rhizobium radiobacter into mice to see if they generate oligomannose-specific antibodies. They did, but although these antibodies can bind to gp120, they weren't capable of blocking HIV from infecting cells in subsequent laboratory tests. Pantophlet hopes to improve the response by separating the polysaccharide from the bacterium and fixing it to another protein that can trigger the immune system to make better antibodies. If the new glycoprotein elicits the desired response, Pantophlet hopes that a prototype vaccine could be created in three to five years. The research is published in Chemistry and Biology.
Refined global warming estimates on the low side A group of researchers from Environment Canada has provided estimates of future climate warming based on anthropogenic activity that are more constrained than — and on the lower end of — those provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Nathan Gillett is a researcher at Environment Canada’s Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis. The centre has developed a model called CanESM2 which includes separate parameterizations for three categories of climate forcings: greenhouse gases, aerosols and natural phenomena such as volcanism and changes in solar radiation. Gillett and his colleagues ran the model with each of the forcings separately and compared the results with the actual temperature records from 1851-2010. They then scaled the response to each forcing according to how much the model overestimated or underestimated the actual temperature response. “The response to aerosols in our model is a cooling, and the response to greenhouse gases is a warming,” explains Gillett. “To give the best fit to the observed changes, we had to scale down both the warming due to greenhouse gases and the cooling due to aerosols.” Previous groups had used the period 1900-1999 as a baseline but according to Gillett, the uncertainty in late 19th century temperature data is no greater than that in early 20th century data. Using their model, the researchers were able to come up with a value for transient climate response, which is the amount of warming at the time when CO2 concentrations reach double their preindustrial levels, which is expected to occur in the middle of this century. The value was 1.3 C to 1.8 C. “That narrow range is within the IPCC’s range of 1 C to 3.5 C for the transient climate response, but it's more closely constrained and toward the lower end,” says Gillett. He emphasizes that the calculations need to be repeated with more models. The work is published in Geophysical Research Letters.
april 2012 CAnadian Chemical News 11
Nanotech venture Vive Crop Protection of Toronto has developeda more eco-friendly way to keep pests, fungi and weeds out of farmers’ fields. And that’s just the beginning. By Tyler Hamilton
esticides don’t have the best reputation when it comes to their potential impacts on human health, but even more concerning — for regulators especially — are the volatile organic solvents frequently relied on to deliver crop-protection chemicals to farmers’ fields. The solvents themselves are often known carcinogens, not the kind of thing we want on farmland that grows soy, corn and wheat. And they’re not as effective as they could be. Farmers tend to overspray to make sure enough of the active ingredients in insecticides, fungicides and herbicides are dispersed across a field to be effective. It’s why Vive Crop Protection, a Toronto-based nanotechnology company specializing in crop protection, has been attracting so much attention from some of the world’s biggest chemical companies. Vive Crop (formerly Vive Nano, and before that Northern Nanotechnologies) has done away with the need for volatile organic solvents. It has also significantly
12 L’Actualité chimique canadienne
Business | crop protection
improved how pesticides are delivered, to the point where fewer active ingredients are needed to do the same job. In both cases, impact to the environment and human health is reduced. At the heart of Vive Crop’s Vive Crop Protection technology are polymer CEO Keith Thomas. particles the company has trademarked under the name Allosperse, which measure less than 10 nanometres in size. It describes these particles as ultrasmall cages — or “really tiny little FEDEX boxes” in the words of CEO Keith Thomas — which hold active pesticide ingredients and are engineered to disperse evenly in water. Even and thorough dispersal is critical. Avinash Bhaskar, an analyst at research firm Frost & Sullivan who has followed Vive Crop closely, says one of the biggest problems with pesticides is they tend to agglomerate, resulting in uneven, clustery distribution on fields. “You want uniform distribution on the soil,” Bhaskar says. “Vive Crop’s technology prevents agglomeration and this is a key differentiator in the market.” How Vive Crop chemically engineers these Allosperse particles is the company’s core innovation. It starts by dissolving negatively charged polymers in water. The like charges repel so the polymers spread out in the solution. Then positively charged ions are added to the mix. These ions neutralize the charge around the polymers, causing the polymers to collapse around the ions and create a kind of nano cage — the Allosperse. The company then filters out the positive and negative ions and loads up the empty cages with molecules of active pesticide ingredients. The cage itself is amphiphilic, meaning it has both water-attracting and water-repelling areas. In this case, the outer shell attracts water and the inner core doesn’t. “While in water the active ingredient, which also hates water, stays inside (the cages),” explains Vive Crop chief technology officer Darren Anderson. Because the outside of the cages like water, the particles freely and evenly disperse. “Once sprayed
on the crop, the water droplets evaporate and the active ingredient gradually disperses from the particles that are left behind.” How does Vive Crop assure that the Allosperse cages are amphiphilic? “I can’t tell you the answer,” says Anderson. “It’s part of our secret sauce.” What the company can say is that the polymer cages themselves are benign. Vive Crop makes them out of chitosans, found naturally in the shells of shrimp and other crustaceans, and polyacrylic acid, the super-absorbent material found in baby diapers. “They’re all approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and if they’re safe enough for kids’ diapers they’re safe enough for crops,” says Thomas. “The end result is that the nasty solvents are gone.” The approach could just as easily work for delivering dyes, fragrances and drugs — all markets that Vive Crop will explore down the road. Crop protection was chosen as the quickest path to market for a number of reasons. Field trials with a crop are much easier and take far less time — as little as a month or even a few days — compared to doing multi-year trials to test, for example, delivery of chemotherapy drugs. “It’s the same insect we’re killing whether it’s in the lab or in the field, but with drug delivery you’re going from petri dish to mouse to human,” says Thomas. The core technology was developed in the early 2000s by Jordan Dinglasan, a chemistry student from the Philippines who took up graduate
april 2012 CAnadian Chemical News 13
Vive Crop co-founder and R&D coordinator Jordan Dinglasan (centre) developed the company's core technology. He is flanked by formulationschemist Anjan Das and research assistant DanielleNorton.
studies at the University of Toronto. Dinglasan and fellow researchers at U of T’s Department of Chemistry, including Anderson and chemistry professor Cynthia Goh, decided in 2006 that they wanted to reach beyond the walls of academia and create a company to commercialize the technology. Thomas, 47, a seasoned entrepreneur who had just sold his IT firm Vector Innovations, was on the prowl for a new venture to invest in and, after seeing a presentation from Dinglasan and colleagues, found himself impressed by what the team had developed. He decided to take the researchers under his wing. “I’m the grey hair on the team,” he jokes. But a bit of grey hair is exactly what this team of talented researchers, with no prior business experience, needed. Thomas focused the company’s efforts,
14 L’Actualité chimique canadienne
refined its business model and opened up dialogue with some of the world’s largest chemical companies. “They have so much potential,” says Jon Dogterom, who leads the clean technology, advanced materials and engineering practice at MaRS, an innovation “incubator” in Toronto that counts Vive Crop as one of its early clients. “A lot of what’s going for this company is its people and with Keith at the helm, it gives me a lot of confidence in what they’re doing.” The company now has about 30 employees, with Dinglasan in the role of research and development coordinator and Goh, who is still a professor at the university, acting as company adviser. Vive Crop has so far raised about $8 million from the private sector, on top of another $8 million in grants from provincial and government bodies, including the Ontario Centres of Excellence and Sustainable Development Technology Canada. “We were very lucky in terms of the equity we’ve been able to raise and other financing. We’re sitting on a good amount of cash right now, but we’re not self-sustaining yet,” says Thomas. “We’re currently developing products in conjunction with, you name it… .” He stops short of saying exactly
Load which companies. But those close to Vive Crop say it’s a Who’s Who of the industry: Dow Chemical, BASF and other giants looking to reduce the environmental and health impacts of their products. “We’re not ever going to be distributing our own products,” says Thomas. “We work with the majors and in some cases with generic manufacturers. We get the active ingredients from these customers, and then do the work to enhance the delivery of that ingredient for them.” Thomas stresses that no commercial products based on Vive Crop’s technology have yet hit the market, though expects that 2013 will be a breakout year after regulatory approvals have been obtained. “But in field trials it works and it works really well.” Those field trials have been done in two stages. One involves testing of the product in greenhouses at Ontario’s University of Guelph, which works in collaboration with Vive Crop. Greenhouses offer a more controlled environment without surprises from Mother Nature, such as unexpected wind gusts and rainfall. The second stage moves the technology from the greenhouse to the farmer’s field. The company works with a third-party research organization, which to date has run several independent tests on dedicated plots of land in the American southeast, as well as in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and some tropical locations outside of North America. There’s no doubt in the minds of Vive Crop’s founders that the technology is going to have a major impact on the industry. “I expect the technology to be a game-changer in the agricultural sector,” says Anderson, who was the company’s founding president before Thomas joined. “Eventually, I expect products like ours will represent the majority of products on the market.” Frost & Sullivan honoured Vive Crop with a technology innovation award in 2010. At the time, Bhaskar said the company had a head start in the market. “Competing solutions are still in their respective research stages, waiting for credible evidence on the impact of their technology,” he said then. Pose the question today and Anderson says the company still has a healthy market lead. “We think we’re at least two years ahead of most of our competitors.”
Vive's polymer particle, trademarked under the name Allosperse, are less than 10 nanometres in size and they hold active pesticide ingredients.
fact it has stayedonly; focused —particle that *For IllustrativeThe purposes 90 per cent of its activities are devoted to agri-chem development — has helped it maintain that lead. But the company has its eye on other markets as well. It sees itself developing gold and magnetic nanoparticles that can enhance diagnostic processes in life sciences and other nanoparticles being used to make advanced coatings. Another potential application is light-activated photocatalysts that can be used for water remediation or to break down pollutants that accumulate on the outside of buildings and bridges, helping to keep them clean. What Bhaskar likes about the company is that it’s capable of creating nanoparticles for most chemicals on the periodic table and it can manufacture its product in large volumes. “Further, the technology does not need a dedicated plant and is easy and costeffective to implement.” In this sense, Vive Crop is more than just a farmer’s field of dreams and a nightmare for pests and weeds.
april 2012 CAnadian Chemical News 15
Chemical Institute of Canada | Career Services
Chemical Institute of Canada
Recruitment Zone! Presented at the National Job Fair and Training Expo April 4–5, 2012 Metro Toronto Convention Centre www.thenationaljobfair.com
The Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) and the CIC Toronto 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
• 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
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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 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
www.cheminst.ca/profdev Continuing Professional Development presented by the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) and the CanadianSociety for Chemical Technology (CSCT).
Chemical Institute of Canada
The 2013 Canadian Green Chemistry and Engineering Network (CGCEN) Award
Canadian Green Chemistry and Engineering Network Award (Individual) Sponsored by GreenCentre Canada
Ontario Green Chemistry and Engineering Network Award (Individual) Sponsored by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment
Ontario Green Chemistry and Engineering Network Award (Organizational) Sponsored by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment
The awards will be presented at the 62nd Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference in Vancouver, BC on October 14–17, 2012 and will showcase top performers in green chemistry and engineering.
Deadline: Wednesday, July 4, 2012 for the 2013 selection. For details visit: www.cheminst.ca/greenchemistryawards Nominations for these awards are being accepted now. For more details contact email@example.com. The Canadian Green Chemistry and Engineering Network is a forum of the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC).
The Amazing Gene Machine A look back at the Canadian roots of the biotechology revolution By Tyler Irving
here are few better examples of Canadian chemical innovation than that of Kelvin Ogilvie. A Nova Scotian by birth, 69-year-old Ogilvie has been a chemistry professor at the University of Manitoba, McGill University and Acadia University, serving as president of the latter from 1993 to 2003. In 1981, Ogilvie was part of the team that created the Gene Machine, the first device to provide accurate, fast and inexpensive synthesis of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA) sequences. He was appointed to the Canadian senate in 2009 and inducted into the Canadian Science and Technology Hall of Fame in late 2011. ACCN spoke to Ogilvie about how his innovation started the biotechnology revolution, and what today’s researchers can learn from his experience.
ACCN What was the field of DNA synthesis like when
you got started? KO By the 1970s, biologists had figured out how to use enzy-
matic tools in bacteria to cut open their DNA and to splice in genes from other organisms. The problem was that they couldn’t get their hands on synthetic genes. You had to somehow isolate a gene from a natural source, which was very complicated. It would be much easier if you could simply push a button and make the gene you wanted. But the methods we had were very inefficient. They were low-yield and timeconsuming, with some steps taking as long as 24 hours. To put
18 L’Actualité chimique canadienne
Kelvin Ogilvie in his chemistry lab at Acadia University in 1988. Ogilvie served as president of Acadia from 1993–2003.
Chemistry | dna synthesis
it in perspective: putting together a 12-unit piece of DNA would have taken a team of highly trained post-docs roughly three to six months. Even the smallest genes have more than 100 units in them. Those methods would clearly not be the ones that would ultimately allow scientists to synthesize DNA and RNA sequences of any length. ACCN How did you approach the problem? KO I started by looking at RNA. Its monomer units are similar
to those of DNA, but it has an extra hydroxyl group in the 2’ position of the ribose sugar. Because of that, RNA is harder
a tertiary butyldimethylsilyl protecting group. We attempted to use that with various coupling methods for the monomers that were being developed in different laboratories. Robert Letsinger from Northwestern University had come up with a phosphate coupling procedure for putting DNA units together and I instantly recognized that it would be compatible with my silyl protecting group system. We tried it with RNA and it was a beauty. ACCN What happened next? KO Once you are able to put those units together in very
high yield and in the correct order, what you’re really doing is carrying out a lot of repetitive steps, so the idea of automation is always in the back of your mind. We got a team of people together, including a really exceptional entrepreneur named Robert Bender. He had the idea of trying to find a way to automate DNA synthesis and RNA synthesis independently, but he needed our methods, including these new protecting groups. So he put together the resources and developed instruments around this particular chemistry and the outcome was the Gene Machine, which we demonstrated live on TV in 1981. ACCN Did you have trouble getting people to believe that you had accomplished what you said you had? KO Absolutely. I remember that we went to the major
to synthesize and less stable than DNA. I knew that if I found a highly efficient way of putting RNA units together, DNA would be a piece of cake. The big issue was the problem of finding a protection system for the various functional groups of the RNA monomer units, for example, to keep that problematic 2’ hydroxyl group from reacting until it was the right time. I identified alkylsilyl protecting groups that were really efficient and stable and yet easily removed at the end without degrading the RNA chain. The group of choice for me was
biotechnology conference in San Francisco and set up a booth with the machine. We had cards that scientists could fill out with up to a 12-unit sequence that they would like to have. That was the length of segment that you could use to probe living systems for a particular gene, so a 12-unit piece was an extremely important scientific tool at the time. We promised that the president of the conference would draw the winning sequence on a Thursday morning and we would deliver the completed sequence anywhere in North America the following Monday. I don’t think there was a single scientist who filled out one of those cards who believed there was any hope of it happening; they knew it was impossible to do that in a weekend. Nevertheless, hundreds of cards were filled out and on Thursday morning, the president drew
april 2012 CAnadian Chemical News 19
Nurturing home-grown biotech innovation Besides the Gene Machine, Senator Kelvin Ogilvie’s knowledge of RNA synthesis led to the development of Ganciclovir, an important antiviral drug used to treat numerous infections. For his success in translating scientific discoveries into the marketplace, Ogilvie received the prestigious Manning Principal Award from the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation in 1991. One year later, he was inducted into the Order of Canada. Ogilvie currently chairs the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. Like many observers, Ogilvie is concerned about the so-called innovation gap in Canada. “We should be very proud of the tremendous strength we have in our research institutes, but we should be ashamed of how poorly we have done in translating technology into social and economic benefit,” he says. Ogilvie believes that one of our biggest problems is geography: Canada is 35 million people spread over the second-largest landmass of any country. According to Ogilvie, innovation works best when there is critical mass in specific clusters, where people from related companies and organizations can meet and exchange ideas. He cites the development in the 1980s of the National Research Council’s Biotechnology Research Institute (NRC-BRI) in Montreal, where he played a key role. NRC-BRI provides laboratory space, access to fermenters and other research infrastructure to small technology companies, which in turn feed a community of spin-offs and secondary industries. Ogilvie would like to see other NRC institutes follow this model. “I would argue the NRC has gotten a long way from its original mandate and essentially attempted to become another academic research institute. The NRC should be a collaborator with university researchers, not a competitor.” Much has been written in the past year about Canada’s Science and Technology strategy. A number of reports have advocated reform, such as streamlining the Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax credit, or providing more direct funding for industrial research and development. Ogilvie believes these are important, but feels we also need to develop an innovation-oriented entrepreneurial class and receptor capacity for innovation in existing industries, along with critical infrastructure. Meanwhile, many prominent scientists have argued against changes to government funding of basic research, as the next breakthrough cannot be predicted. Ogilvie sees the competition between fundamental and applied research as a false dichotomy. He cites the example of Louis Pasteur, who made many important discoveries, both fundamental and applied, with funding from private sources. “Every good scientist has an idea of why they’re trying to pursue their area of research and where it might ultimately have benefit in some way,” he says. “It’s critical for us to get over our parochialism, and invest in supports for technology development, regardless of who comes up with it.”
20 L’Actualité chimique canadienne
the winning sequence from a laboratory in upstate New York. It was delivered to them on Monday morning, they used it and it appeared in a publication a number of months later. In one dramatic example, it transformed the thinking of scientists dealing with the manipulation of cellular organisms. To be frank, it launched the biotechnology revolution. ACCN Can you give us one or
two examples of products or techniquesmade possible by your innovation? KO Prior to biotechnology, insulin was
extracted from the pancreases of human cadavers. This was inefficient and you had the possibility of extracting toxic materials along with it. With the gene machine, it was possible to create a synthetic gene, put it in an E. coli cell and give it instructions to make lots of copies. You could then build up a huge fermentation tank of E. coli cells, all of which are now producing human insulin along with other protein molecules. The human insulin is then extracted from the final mixture. Not only does this produce human insulin free of any of the problems associated with extracting it from cadavers, but it also creates an unlimited supply. Within a few years, most countries in the industrialized world passed laws to ensure that the only human insulin that could be sold on the market was that produced from biotechnology. You can now do that for any protein
molecule that you consider important, provided you know what the gene sequence is. Today, we can produce a myriad of proteins including human growth hormone to treat many different diseases. Another example is the genetic engineering of plants and microorganisms to produce large quantities of isobutanol. This chemical can be dehydrated to form isobutylene, which is a major component of synthetic rubber. Creating these genes and putting them into organisms allows us to bypass the petrochemical route
to produce a molecule that’s tremendously important in making polymers. ACCN Who owns the Gene Machinenow? KO The company went through all of the stages from angel
investing through venture capital, and ultimately a listing on the TSX and on NASDAQ. Unfortunately, it ran into serious management problems as it moved into large commercial stages and was purchased in a reverse takeover by another company. Its technology was eventually lost to Canadian commercial development. Other companies came along using similar technologies, patents expired and today companies providing DNA synthesis equipment are common. The reality is that you rarely have one individual who can take a company from an embryonic concept into a major producing corporation. It takes different skills at different stages of corporate development and in those days Canada did not have a lot of that kind of experience. ACCN When you look at the
modernbiotech industry, what do you see?
Canada Science and Technology Museum
KO Today, biotechnology is a huge,
(L to R) Kelvin Ogilvie, instrumentation specialist Peter Duck, and entrepreneur Robert Bender pose in front of the Gene Machine in 1980. The machine had just demonstrated the first fully automated synthesis of a 10-unit sequence of DNA.
global industry with an enormous range of products that emerge from our knowledge and understanding of cellular systems and our ability to manipulate them. A lot of that knowledge came from being able to make any sequence of DNA or RNA in order to probe living systems and figure out how they worked. Anytime you are looking at studying life at the molecular level, you’re dealing with chemistry. So we chemists have made an important contribution and many of us in the 1960s and 1970s could imagine this kind of world. To see it coming to fruition is very satisfying.
april 2012 CAnadian Chemical News 21
A renaissance in gasification is brewing thanks to a partnership between The Universityof British Columbia and NexterraSystems Corp. By Roberta Staley
“As the gleam of the street-lamps flashed upon his austerefeatures, I saw that his brows were drawn down in thought and his thin lips compressed. I knew not what wild beast we were about to hunt down in the dark jungle of criminal London… .” - “The Adventure of the Empty House,” The Best of Sherlock Holmes.
uring the 18th century’s chemical revolution, chemists first realized that air was not merely an element but a mixture of many gases. It followed that the gases could be captured, manufactured, purified and used for a variety of purposes, morphing quickly from scientific discovery into a utility. By the 19th century, combustible gases such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen and ethylene were in wide use as a source of energy for heating and illumination, casting somber pools of light not only on the fictional exploits of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson but the real-life horror of Jack the Ripper’s murderous rampage upon the demimonde of London. The source of combustible materials for manufacturing gas during the Victorian era and into the early 20 th century was diverse and included biomass such as wood, coal and oil. Wood gasification was embraced by farmers to run their internal combustion engines, especially during the fuel shortages of the early 20th century and, later, the Second World War. But a heady era of cheap oil and gas followed and gasification, except for some specialized applications, was relegated to the back burner. Now, however, with the
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spectre of peak oil looming, a renaissance in gasification is brewing. And the epicentre of this redux is — perhaps not surprisingly — Canada’s West Coast, with its seemingly endless supply of biomass from vast forests and British Columbia’s lumber and pulp and paper industries. This includes huge amounts of wood waste: bark, sawdust and tree trimmings, as well as about 17.5 million hectares of dead timber killed by pine beetles. Nestled between pine and Pacific shoreline is The University of British Columbia (UBC). Here is found the cramped office of John Grace, a chemical engineering professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Grace, the Canada Research Chair in Clean Energy Processes, says that the renewal
Chemical Engineering | GASIFICATION
Process flow illustrationof the CHP gasification system with the GE Jenbacherengineat The University of British Columbia.
of interest in gasification is driven by several key concerns: the need to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and the rising demand for cleaner burning fuels which produce fewer secondary pollutants like nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur oxides (SOx). A third factor is the growing energy demand among developing countries for liquid and gaseous fuel. In China, for example, oil is in short supply, but coal is abundant. Gasifying this coal creates a number of advantages over burning it directly. At its core, gasification is the process of reacting carbon-based fuels at high temperatures and low oxygen to create synthesis gas, also known as syngas, a mixture of mainly carbon monoxide and hydrogen. After being cleaned up, syngas can be fired into a conventional
gas burner or an internal combustion engine. According to Grace, this can lead to greater efficiency than burning solid particles from coal or wood. The cleanup step cuts down on the emissions of secondary pollutants derived from impurities in the original wood or coal. Another option is that that instead of being burned, syngas can also be converted to larger molecules via the Fisher-Tropsch process, creating liquid fuels or commodity chemicals like methanol, ethanol and alkanes. Today, gasification is considered to be one of most versatile and efficient ways to convert low-cost wood waste and other biomass fuels into thermal energy or electricity. It is also a key technology in helping to achieve global greenhouse gas-emission reduction objectives, says Grace, who is chair of the 3rd International Symposium on Gasification, held in conjunction with the 62nd Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference Oct 14-17 in Vancouver. “Our dependence on fossil fuels is still so great that we must find ways to decarbonize them and reduce emissions associated with their usage,” Grace says. He points to global trends indicating rising fossil-fuel consumption due to improved living standards in developing nations, increasing populations, as well as the West’s reluctance to trim its prodigious energy appetite. “We need to manage our carbon better and find alternatives — preferably renewable energy resources.” Grace’s scholarship includes the study of fluidized bed gasification, a technology dating back to the 1920s. Along with a UBC team that includes Tony Bi, Naoko Ellis, Jim Lim and Paul Watkinson, Grace is seeking fluidized bed reactors that can do more with less. One example is a dual fluidized bed steam gasification system. Most gasifiers contact fuel with a sub-stoichiometric amount of air, which is mostly nitrogen. The inert nitrogen dilutes the final gas stream, decreasing its calorific value. Replacing the air with steam leads to a better final product,
april 2012 CAnadian Chemical News 25
but steam gasification is endothermic and requires an external heat source. The UBC group’s challenging solution is to combine a steam gasifier with a seperate combustion chamber that burns the char left over from the original fuel. By recirculating hot solids from the combustion chamber back to the gasifier, the heat balance is satisfied, allowing the system to make better use of the same fuel. A further innovation being explored involves circulating solid sorbents like calcium oxide (CaO) through both chambers. In the gasifier, CaO reacts with CO2 molecules to become calcium carbonate (CaCO3). The carbonation reaction is exothermic so it also provides heat to the gasifier as well as shifting the water gas shift equilibrium to produce more hydrogen. In the combustion chamber, the higher temperature decomposes this sorbent material back into CaO and CO2, thus regenerating the sorbent and creating a relatively pure CO2 stream that can be compressed and sent to storage. Another project, supported by an NSERC grant and a collaboration with the universities of Toronto and Calgary, is investigating the co-feeding of different fuels, for example, combining biomass with coal and coke. Finally, Grace is a member of a $52-million research endeavour backed by Carbon Management Canada (CMC) and including contributions from universities from across the country. That project will create a pilot plant at UBC’s Pulp and Paper Centre that will integrate carbon capture into the gasification process. UBC researchers are also collaborating with the dynamic young Vancouverbased company Nexterra Systems Corp. on another ambitious gasification
26 L’Actualité chimique canadienne
project that is sure to turn heads when it officially opens in mid-year. Nexterra and GE Energy of Mississauga, Ont. partnered to create a combined heat and power (CHP) system for generating steam and energy on campus. The CHP system marries Nexterra’s gasification and syngas cleanup and conditioning technologies with a GE high-efficiency internal combustion engine built by Jenbacher, a world leader in specialty gas engines. Woody biomass will be gasified and converted into clean syngas that will be directly fired into the gas engine. Nexterra CEO Mike Scott says that he expects that the engine will perform at the same level as if it was fuelled by natural gas. The process will significantly reduce UBC’s annual carbon footprint, creating two megawatt electrical (MWe) and three megawatt thermal (MWt) of steam, equivalent to taking 1,000 cars off the road, Scott says. UBC consumes about 40 MWe a year and the institution is looking to become even more self-sufficient. “They have been a fantastic partner in this whole process,” Scott says from the 13th floor of his Vancouver office, which looks out on a downtown core hooded by low-lying, slate grey rain clouds. “This biomass research project is one of the lynchpins of their living lab concept.” Scott says that Nexterra researchers are collaborating with Grace and one of his master’s students to advance this technology even further, upgrading clean, engine-grade syngas into pure hydrogen. “To go from biomass into green hydrogen and make it part of the hydrogen economy — that would be remarkable,” Scott says. Nexterra’s large-scale gasifiers have sprouted up at other institutions and
(1) Nexterra Systems’s 5 MWt thermal gasificationenergy system at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, B.C. (2) Nexterra's bioenergy project at The University of British Columbia will generate clean steam and electricity. (3) University of Northern British Columbia PresidentGeorge Iwama lights up the Nexterra gasification system that supplies heat for the Prince George campus.
in other industries. The University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) Prince George, B.C. campus is benefitting from a $15-million retrofit that was launched in January 2011 as an alternative to natural gas. Fuelled by wood waste from a local sawmill, the system was forecast to save the university $850,000 a year in natural gas, Scott says. (Recent record low natural gas prices have reduced that initial estimate.) The project netted UNBC first place — shared with Harvard University — for Campus Sustainability Projects in North America from
the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Gasification does have challenges to overcome. The low cost of natural gas and the operational hurdles associated with switching to biomass gasification are deterring a nation-wide embrace of the process. “It simply isn’t as easy as using natural gas,” Scott admits. Nevertheless, Nexterra has had significant success selling gasification engines to institutions and industries across North America with the foresight to prepare for long-term energy needs. Just down the road in New Westminster, B.C. is Kruger Products Mills, the first pulp and paper mill to fire syngas from a Nexterra system directly into a boiler. Other clients include the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which projects reductions of greenhouse gas emissions by 20,000 tonnes a year, equivalent to taking 4,500 cars off the road. The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Michigan is also adopting a Nexterra system that is projected to reduce the hospital’s carbon footprint by 14,000 tonnes annually, equal to parking 2,500 cars, Scott says. It is unlikely that early proponents of biomass gasification envisioned that the process would have the potential to outlive the global dependence upon fossil fuels. However, gasification, thanks in larger part to researchers like Grace and companies like Nexterra, are helping forge a path into a brave new world of clean and sustainable energy for the planet.
april 2012 CAnadian Chemical News 27
Society news awards
CIC and CSC 2012 award winners The Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) and the Canadian Society for Chemistry (CSC) award winners will be honoured at either the 95 th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition in Calgary May 26-30 or the 62nd Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference Oct. 14-17 in Vancouver. The CIC winners are: John Grace, FCIC, University of British Columbia, Montreal Medal,
sponsored by the Montreal CIC Local Section and the CIC, for his contributions to the chemical community. Grace was chair of the CIC and president of the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering (CSChE), an adviser to Natural Resources Canada, as well as chairing NSERC Committees and participating on the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board. He was editor of Chemical Engineering Science and participated on other editorial boards. Raymond J. Andersen, FCIC, University of British Columbia. CIC
Medal, sponsored by the CIC, for his research in chemistry of biologically active marine natural products. Charles Mims, MCIC, University of Toronto. Catalysis Award, sponsored by the Canadian Catalysis Foundation for his investigation of catalytic and surface reaction mechanisms of significance to the energy sector. Dietmar Kennepohl, FCIC, Athabasca University. Award for Chemical Education, sponsored by the CIC Chemical Education Fund, for his commitment to excellence in post-secondary education. Kennepohl’s research in chemical education extends outside the classroom, with concentration on the use of innovative online and distance delivery methods. Jon Abbatt, University of Toronto. Environment Division Research and
Development Award, sponsored by the CIC Environment Division, for his research in atmospheric chemistry with a focus on aerosol chemistry. Françoise Winnik, Université de Montréal. Macromolecular Science and Engineering Award, sponsored by NOVA Chemicals Corp., for her research in amphiphilic polymers.
research in synthetic chemistry with a particular emphasis on carbohydrate chemistry. David Marcoux, MCIC, for research carried out at Université de
Montréal under adviser André Charette FCIC, now at Harvard University. Boehringer Ingelheim (Canada) Doctoral Research Award, sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim (Canada) Ltd., for graduate work focused on the synthesis and use of tetrarylphophonium salts as a solubility control group in organic chemistry. Louis Barriault, University of Ottawa. Boehringer Ingelheim (Canada) Research Excellence Award, s ponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim (Canada) Ltd., for his research in asymmetric synthesis, development of new synthetic methods and total synthesis of complex natural products. Charles Yeung, MCIC, for research carried out at University of Toronto under adviser Vy Dong, now at Harvard University. Canadian Council of University Chemistry Chairs (CCUCC) Chemistry Doctoral Award, sponsored by the CCUCC, for graduate work focusing on the development of new catalytic methods using carbon dioxide as an organic feedstock. Rina Carlini, MCIC, Xerox Research Centre of Canada. Clara
Benson Award, sponsored by CCUCC, for her research in processes for preparation of nanopigments. Janusz Pawliszyn, FCIC, University of Waterloo. E.W.R. Steacie Award, sponsored by the following CIC divisions: Analytical; Physical, Theoretical and Computational; Inorganic and Organic, for research in the design of highly automated and integrated instrumentation for the isolation of analytes from complex matrices and the subsequent separation, identification and determination of these species. Dennis Salahub, FCIC, University of Calgary. John C. Polanyi
Award, sponsored by the Physical, Theoretical and Computational Chemistry Division, for his contributions to the development of quantum chemical methodology and its applications to systems of ever-increasing complexity.
Yvan Guindon, FCIC, Clinical Research Institute of Montreal.
Aicheng Chen , MCIC, Lakehead University. Keith Laidler Award, sponsored by the Physical, Theoretical and Computational Chemistry Division, for his research on structure and reactivity of nanostructured catalysts at the molecular level.
Alfred Bader Award sponsored by Alfred Bader, HFCIC, for his research on synthesis of natural products of the polyketides family.
Pierre Thibault, MCIC, Université de Montréal. Maxxam Award,
Frank van Veggel, MCIC, University of Victoria. Award for Research
sponsored by Maxxam Analytics Inc., for his research in bioanalytical chemistry and mass spectrometry.
Excellence in Materials Chemistry, sponsored by the CIC Materials Chemistry Division, for his research on luminescent nanoparticles.
Stephen Loeb, FCIC, University of Windsor. Rio Tinto Alcan
Todd Lowary, MCIC, University of Alberta. Bernard Belleau
Award, sponsored by Rio Tinto Alcan, for his research in supermolecular chemistry.
The CSC winners are:
Award, sponsored by Vertex Pharmaceuticals (Canada) Inc., for his
28 L’Actualité chimique canadienne
Society news recognition
EIC honours CSChE members Mario Pinto, FCIC, Simon Fraser University. R. U. Lemieux Award, sponsored by Gilead Alberta ULC, for his research in bioorganic chemistry, providing potential applications for the control or treatment of bacterial and viral diseases. Mark Stradiotto, MCIC, Dalhousie University. Strem Chemicals Award for Pure or Applied Inorganic Chemistry, sponsored by Strem Chemicals Inc., for his research focusing on the development of highly effective ancillary ligands for use in challenging cross-coupling reactions. Yingfu Li, MCIC, McMaster University. W.A.E. McBryde Medal, sponsored by AB Sciex, for his research on aspects of aptamer and DNAzyme based biosensors.
New CIC Fellows
Two CSChE member were recently honoured by the Engineering Institute of Canada (EIC) at its annual awards dinner, held late February in Ottawa. Phillip (Rocky) Simmons, MCIC and CEO of Eco-Tec Ltd. of Pickering, Ont. was awarded the K. Y. Lo Medal, given annually to an individual and member of the Engineering Institute of Canada who has made outstanding contributions internationally in the field of engineering. Marc Arnold Dubé, FCIC and professor of chemical engineering at the University of Ottawa, was among the members inducted as fellows of the EIC for exceptional contributions to engineering in Canada. OUTREACH
Attracted to chemistry
The Chemical Institute of Canada has awarded 2012 Fellowships to three individuals: Catherine Cardy, FCIC, Imperial Oil (CSCT) Ajay Dalai, FCIC, University of Saskatchewan (CSChE) Pierre Beaumier, FCIC,
CanAlt Health Labs (CSC)
Fellowships are awarded annually in recognition of CIC members who have made outstanding contributions in their field. membership
Half a century with CIC Congratulations to those who have achieved 50 years of membership the CIC. Joseph Atkinson, FCIC, Toronto Hans Baer, FCIC, Ottawa Douglas Brewer, FCIC, Fredericton John Dalton, MCIC, Kelowna, B.C. Jacques Desnoyers, FCIC, Québec City Morris Givner, FCIC, Halifax J. Hardy, MCIC, Vegreville, Alta. Rainer Minzloff, MCIC, Dartmouth, N.S. Robert Nelson, MCIC, Richmond, B.C. Walter Sowa, MCIC, Toronto Otto Strausz, FCIC, Edmonton Robert Thompson, FCIC, Vancouver Zdenek Valenta, FCIC, Fredericton Galen Van Cleave, MCIC, Victoria
Actor Martin Pelletier of Québec City plays the French chemist Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier at Attraction chimique.
The CIC Chemical Education Fund has awarded a $5,000 grant to Attraction chimique, a travelling exhibit that aims to reverse the sometimes-negative view that the public has about chemistry. Created by the Département de chimie de l’Université Laval, its goal is to have people appreciate this thrilling science as essential to everyday life. Attraction chimique was officially launched last August at the Pavillon des sciences (Science Pavillon) of Expo Québec 2011 in Québec City. To date, the exhibit has travelled to about 20 events in and around Québec City, including the Salon Éducation Emploi. The exhibit illustrates the role of chemistry by presenting entertaining and interactive workshops. Visitors become a ‘chemist-for-a-day’ and perform real experiments. While participants range from the very young to the very old, children and teenagers are especially drawn to the exhibit. Attraction chimique is divided into themes: the chemistry you eat; the science of fireworks; CSI: Québec and radioactivity and chemistry in Canada. This summer, a new theme, materials chemistry, will be added. Events are also being planned for Ontario and New Brunswick with a translated version of Attraction chimique. No dates have yet been set for outside Québec. In addition to the grant, Attraction chimique is supported by the Ministère du Développement Économique, de l’Innovation et de l’Exportation du Québec (MDEIE) and La Boîte à science.
april 2012 CAnadian Chemical News 29
Murder most chemically foul
he rosary pea plant is a perennial that grows in tropical and subtropical areas of the world. It twines around trees and shrubs and is easily recognized by its seeds, which are usually black and red and resemble a lady bug. Their striking appearance has led to their use in jewelry and in prayer beads, hence the name “rosary pea plant.” Prayer beads are a symbol of devotion to a deity and a celebration of life, but when they are made of the seeds of the rosary pea, they can harbour death. The seeds contain abrin, a toxin so potent that three-millionths of a gram circulating in the bloodstream can be fatal. But the poison, a type of protein known as a lectin, must enter the bloodstream to do damage. Once in the blood, it can be transported into cells where it gums up the protein-making machinery. Since life depends upon protein synthesis, exposure to lectins can be lethal. However, swallowing a whole rosary pea seed is unlikely to cause any harm because the hard shell prevents any of the contents from being released. Chances are the bead will make its exit after traversing the digestive tract in the same form it went in. But if the seed is chewed, the results are very different. Vomiting and diarrhea ensue, followed by seizures and death. The difference between swallowing the whole seed or chewing it was exploited by Venetian courts in the Middle Ages. In the case of people accused of murder, God supposedly would make the judgment. His verdict was revealed by the effect upon the
30 L’Actualité chimique canadienne
accused of swallowing a rosary pea plant seed. The innocent were unaffected, the guilty suffered an agonizing death. Of course, it was not God but the courts who made the judgment. The effects depended on whether the accused was told to swallow the seed or chew it. If the judges believed the accused to be guilty, they would be told to chew the seed; if deemed to be innocent, they would be told to swallow the seed whole. A toxin so potent as abrin can be expected to have appeal as a murder weapon as well as a chemical warfare agent. Extracting abrin from rosary pea seeds and processing into a powder that can then be used to contaminate food or water does not require great expertise in chemistry. In the powdered form, abrin can also be dispensed into the air where it can be inhaled. There is no documented evidence of abrin having been used as a murder weapon, but it is certainly a possibility. A very similar lectin, ricin, isolated from castor beans, was used in the famous 1978 “umbrella assassination” of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident in London. While waiting at a bus stop, Markov was injected with a tiny ricin-containing pellet propelled from a specially designed umbrella. As far as we know, no murderer has used abrin in the real world, but it has reared its head in the world of fiction. Kathy Reichs is a celebrated mystery writer and forensic anthropologist who inspired the television show Bones, about a forensic scientist much like herself. Reichs works as a producer and, in the 2011 episode “Flash and Bones,”
By Joe Schwarcz
introduces abrin as a murder weapon and gives a detailed and correct description of its properties. Abrin is also discussed in The Poisoner’s Handbook, authored by Maxwell Hutchkinson in 1988. In this 88-page publication, Hutchkinson provides various recipes for poisoning people, including the use of abrin. The book is scientifically weak and is more or less the rantings of a lunatic who thinks it is the duty of Americans to dispatch “foreign devils” with “speed and vigor.” Hutchkinson is no fan of Catholics and proposes a way to dispense of them by using rosaries made of the seeds of Abrus precatorius, the rosary seed plant. “Wearing leather gloves, very carefully puncture about a dozen minute holes in each bean on a rosary,” Hutchkinson writes. “Then spray the string of beads with dimethyl sulfoxide which will dissolve and carry the abrin through the skin.” Dimethyl sulfoxide, or DMSO, does enhance the absorption of chemicals through the skin and there are stories floating around about people stringing rosary pea seeds for jewelry accidentally sticking themselves and succumbing to the poison. But whether Hutchkinson’s formula for murder would work is highly debatable. What isn’t debatable is that nature is full of all sorts of powerful toxins that have the potential to kill. Joe Schwarcz is the director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society. Read his blog at chemicallyspeaking.com.
ď‚š Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering
62nd Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference Incorporating the 3rd International symposiumon Gasification and it's Applications
Opens: March 15, 2012 Closes: May 31, 2012 Vancouver, BC, Canada OCTOBER 14â€“17, 2012 Energy, Environment and Sustainability