MSSI newsletter

Research Spotlight - MSSI Innovation Fund

From closing the loop in nutrient cycles to process electrification, the MSSI Innovation Fund provides support to McGill faculty members to accelerate innovations in the field of sustainability research.

In order to have real-world impact, innovations for sustainability need to move from the idea phase to commercialization or uptake. Since 2018, the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative’s Innovation Fund has been providing McGill Faculty with the support needed to move their projects forward to the next stage of development.

Closing the Phosphorus Loop

“If you live in a large city, every time you flush, you send non-renewable nutrients to a wastewater treatment plant where they are locked up to prevent algal growth and eutrophication”, explains Sidney Omelon, Associate Professor in the Department of Mining and Materials Engineering. Her team is working on a novel process to unlock these important nutrients — specifically phosphorous — so that they can be put to use.

Phosphorous is an essential nutrient for plant growth, making it a critical input for agricultural. Currently, Canada’s fertilizer industry relies mostly on imported, non-renewable phosphate rock. At the same time, municipal wastewater contains high concentrations of phosphorus — from food, human waste, and some detergents — that must be removed through treatment in order to prevent negative impacts on aquatic ecosystems, human health, and the economy.

Existing wastewater treatment processes capture phosphorous as insoluble iron phosphate, which is too stable — or locked up — to be useful to plants. Professor Omelon’s team is looking to recover these outputs as calcium phosphate, a form that is more accessible. This novel technology will contribute to a circular phosphorus cycle, reducing our dependence of phosphate rock imports while limiting adverse impacts of phosphorous on our aquatic environments.

Supported through the MSSI Innovation Fund, Sarah Bluteau — a former M.Eng. student in Professor Omelon’s lab — built and operated a lab-scale process that demonstrated that this novel approach is possible, and her work on the project contributed to a successful M.Eng. thesis submission. Professor Omelon has been awarded a grant from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s AgriRisk Initiatives Microgrants program to continue the development of this new technology.

Renewable Ammonia Synthesis

Ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen that is another traditionally important input for agriculture, is also important for the energy transition as it is considered a promising carbon-free hydrogen carrier and fuel. While ammonia can be produced through natural processes, the synthetic ammonia used in fertilizers — and other chemicals such as pharmaceuticals and cleaning products — is mostly produced through the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process.

Professor Sylvain Coulombe (Department of Chemical Engineering) is looking to displace this process — which currently accounts for roughly 2% of the world’s energy consumption — with a technology that is less energy intensive, makes more efficient use of materials, and relies entirely on electricity from renewable sources.

The proof-of-concept project, supported by the MSSI Innovation Fund, demonstrated that ammonia gas can be synthesized entirely from electricity using plasma technology being developed at the Catalytic & Plasma Process Engineering (CPPE) laboratory. “Over the last 3 years, we developed novel electric plasma reactors and processes to produce ammonia in a completely different and sustainable way,” says Prof. Coulombe. This research has evolved into a collaboration with the National Research Council of Canada National Research Council of Canada under the Materials for Clean Fuels Challenge program and has recently been awarded an NSERC Alliance grant for joint Canada-Germany projects on hydrogen technologies with collaborators at the Technical University of Munich.

The potential to find creative and sustainable solutions to important challenges is what Professor Coulombe finds most exciting about this work: “We are developing novel end-to-end sustainable processes. Students, researchers and professors involved in this project are fully committed to think differently and excited by the prospect of making a huge impact on society.”

You can learn more about the Innovation Fund on the MSSI website.

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