New equipment will help University of Alberta scientists create compounds that could power future

When Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev published the periodic table of the elements in 1869, he invented not only a roadmap for access to all known and future compounds, but also the “chemist’s playground.”

“It’s our playbook,” said the University of Alberta’s Dennis Hall, a professor in the Faculty of Science and Canada Research Chair in Boron Chemistry for Catalysis and Drug Discovery. “It has the building blocks that we use to make all new molecules, compounds and materials.

“But you can only go so far as your ability to characterize compounds.”

To capture desirable or improved properties, Hall said researchers need to innovate by exploiting a larger sweep of the periodic table—integrating elements that are currently neglected or unconventional.

“Every chemist pushes to make new stuff, but you need to be able to characterize it. You need to be able to find out exactly what you have crafted,” he explained.

To help U of A researchers take that next step in characterizing compounds, the federal government, through the Canada Foundation for Innovation, is investing $5.1 million in a characterization equipment upgrade worth $12.7 million.

“It will really elevate the infrastructure that we have right now for characterization of compounds of all sorts,” said Hall, who applied for the funding along with his Department of Chemistry colleague Vladimir Michaelis.

The key new instrument is the high field solid-state NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) instrument. 

“It’s going to make us a leader in materials characterization, especially when you couple this to the instruments we already have with nanoFAB on campus, and other facilities including the DNP (dynamic nuclear polarization) lab,” said Hall.

The U of A will also gain new mass spectrometry and higher-resolution X-ray crystallographic instruments that will allow researchers to essentially “take a photo of a molecule.”

Once compounds can be characterized, Hall said, the applications are endless.

For instance, one research team will immediately start work on the next phase of battery storage, the sodium battery.

“The lithium battery is used in everything, cellphones, electric cars—they’re very small and very convenient, but the environmental cost is pretty expensive,” he said of the mining process involved. “The problem is to develop the electrochemistry that would be as efficient with sodium as it is currently with lithium—so we’re talking about performance.”

Another project will see chemistry professors Jillian Buriak and Jonathan Veinot investigate new materials to enhance solar energy, while Sasha Wilson in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences will use the infrastructure to look at the composition of minerals in a way to make mining cleaner.

As for Hall, he will continue his research into the unconventional use of boron in creating pharmaceuticals. He said the metalloid is a relatively non-toxic element that so far has shown promise toward anti-infective drugs.

“Something I’m very proud of is the team that I’ve assembled for that project. There are 10 principal investigators who are at the top of their fields and already have a record of commercializing discoveries,” said Hall.

“What we really need to be competitive globally is to get good or better characterization instruments than our competitors.

“This will do that.”

All told, five U of A-led projects received $24.1 million in CFI funding, of which $19.3 million is coming to the U of A. The balance will go to project partner institutions across Canada. An additional eight projects led out of partner institutions secured $8.2 million in CFI funding for the U of A. Proposals for matching provincial funding for these projects are with the provinces pending results.

CFI funding for projects led by U of A

Dennis Hall, Vladimir Michaelis

ELEMENTS: Earth, Life, Energy and Materials with multi-Elements for Nano to Terrestrial Structures

$5.1 million from CFI for project worth $12.7 million

Frank Hegmann, Jacob Burgess (University of Manitoba)

Ultrafast Nanoscale Quantum Dynamics (UltraNanoQD) Innovation

$3.9 million from CFI with $3.7 million coming to the U of A and $234,000 to U of M for project worth $9.7 million

Matthew Hicks, Liang Li

Canadian Analytics Network for Outcome Prediction In Exposures (CANOPIE)

$3.1 million from CFI with $2.6 million to the U of A and $591,000 to McGill for project worth $9.1 million

Ian Mann

RADiation Impacts on Climate and Atmospheric Loss Satellite (RADICALS) Mission

$8.1 million in CFI funding, with $6.1 million coming to the U of A and $2 million to the University of Calgary for project worth $20.3 million

David Westaway, Michael Woodside

Protein Misfolding Scientific Exploration (ProMiSE) Team: Infrastructure Support for Remediation of Protein Misfolding

$3.9 million in CFI funding for project worth $9.6 million

CFI funding where U of A is partner institution

Michel Fich (Waterloo), U of A principal investigator: Erik Rosolowsky

CCAT-prime: A Submillimetre Wavelength Survey Telescope in Chile

$4.9 million in CFI funding of which $750,000 is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $28.8 million.

David Blowes (Waterloo), U of A principal investigator: Nicholas Beier

Toward Environmentally Responsible Resource Extraction: Developing Innovative Technologies for Predicting and Remediating Environmental Contamination

$3.3 million in CFI funding of which $203,017 is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $8.5 million.

Mark Boulay (Carleton), U of A principal investigator: Aksel Hallin

Development of Next Generation Liquid Argon Dark Matter Detector and of an Underground Argon Storage Facility at SNOLAB

$6.9 million in CFI funding of which $3 million is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $22.6 million.

Anick Berard (Université de Montréal), U of A principal investigator: Padma Kaul

Canadian Mother-Child Cohort Active Surveillance Initiative (CAMCCO)

$1.2 million in CFI funding of which $331,979 is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $8.5 million.

Monica Emelko (Waterloo), U of A principal investigator: David Olefeldt

Canadian Consortium for Drinking Water Security and Climate Change Adaptation

$3.5 million in CFI funding of which $474,117 is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $9.3 million. 

Gregg Adams (University of Saskatchewan), U of A principal investigator: Graham Plastow

Integrated genomics for sustainable animal agriculture and environmental stewardship (IntegrOmes)

$6.8 million in CFI funding of which $1 million is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $15.9 million.

Bruce Gaulin (McMaster), U of A principal investigator: Larry Unsworth

Building a Future for Canadian Neutron Scattering

$14.3 million in CFI funding of which $400,000 is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $47.3 million.

Paul Barclay (University of Calgary), U of A principal investigator: John Davis

A Quantum Diamond and Hybrid Photonics (QDHyP) Foundry

$5.2 million in CFI funding of which $2 million is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $13.1 million. 

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