Ideas Fund

The MSSI Ideas Fund provides seed funding to explore bold projects and novel ideas which, if successful, will have significant positive impact on sustainability challenges.

2021 - Faculty

Design of Innovative Clean Technologies for Sustainable Use of Marine Biomass

Seaweed cultivation for food, bioenergy, and bioinspired materials is developing rapidly; however, sustainable post-harvesting processing remains a major technological challenge. This project is based on the circular economy principle and aims to design a green process for seaweed transformation with minimal chemical use, low energy costs, zero wastes, improving sustainable development goals for social well-being and environmental health. Lead researcher: Benjamin Simpson.

Mechanochemical Synthesis of Disordered-Rocksalt Anodes for Ultrafast-Charging Li-ion Batteries

The slow rechargeability of Li-ion batteries (LIBs) in electric vehicles (EVs) has been a critical bottleneck for EVs' adoption. The recent discovery of the disordered-rocksalt (DRX) anode opened the possibility of ultrafast LIB-recharging in a few minutes. However, the material could be synthesized only through expensive multi-step methods involving toxic chemicals. Here, we use mechanochemistry for the green, cost-effective, single-step synthesis of novel DRX anodes, revolutionizing the LIBs in EVs for a greener and more sustainable society. Lead researcher: Jinhyuk Lee.

Green Ammonia Production Using Solar-Plasma Catalysis

The goal of this project is to develop a novel and efficient green ammonia production method using solar-plasma catalysis. Solar-thermo-catalysis and plasma-catalysis are both promising candidates with complementary advantages and disadvantages. In this exploratory project, we aim to combine for the first time the strengths of the solar- and plasma-catalysis processes in a synergetic way using our existing plasma-catalysis reactor and 6.5kWe solar thermal facility. Lead researcher: Mélanie Tétreault-Friend.

Tough Biodegradable Protein Nanofibers as Plasticizers for Sustainable Commodity Bioplastics

This project aims to improve the properties of existing biodegradable bioplastics by incorporating bacterial protein nanofibers into the blends. These nanofibers are some of the stiffest known biological materials - they have the potential to toughen polymers and enhance their biodegradability. With low-cost and bio-sourced starting materials, the resulting bioplastics will contribute to growing a sustainable economy. Lead researcher: Noémie-Manuelle Dorval Courchesne.

A Unified Approach Towards Understanding Defect Tolerant Materials for Solar Energy Harvesting

Sustainability is intimately connected to our energy future. Within our energy future, one requires new materials for harvesting energy as well as deploying energy in devices. The most recent material that is setting the global photovoltaic world on fire is the semiconductor perovskite, which has a unique and mysterious defect tolerance to its electronic properties. Here, we will exploit the world-leading expertise of three groups to unravel the mysteries of how these materials function so well, and what design principles can we learn for the future. Lead researcher: Patanjali Kambhampati.

2020 - Faculty

3D printing of Architected Ferroelectrics for Sustainable Energy Harvesting

In efforts to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and to lessen their environmental impacts, a new sustainable energy material based on architected ferroelectrics will be designed and 3D printed to simultaneously scavenge energy from wasted resources and to strategically reduce energy consumption in structural systems and infrastructure. Lead researcher: Hamid Akbarzadeh.

Ultrahigh-efficient Solar Desalination via Novel Hydrogels Spontaneously Lowering Enthalpy of Vaporization

Solar desalination is an effective solution to address water scarcity, but the high energy demand to evaporate water poses a technology barrier. This project is developing novel light-sorbing hydrogels that can spontaneously lower the energy demand, owing to the unique ability to disrupt forces holding water molecules together. A prototype solar still equipped with the hydrogel will be tested for efficiency and water quality. Lead researcher: Jinxia Liu.

The Effect of Microplastics on Cloud Droplet Formation

The elimination of single-use plastics is at the heart of many sustainability initiatives. Understanding the lifecycle and impact of these materials on atmospheric processes will be crucial in the design of their alternatives and key to avoiding an outcome where a replacement is unintentionally more harmful to the environment. Using optical trapping, we will be able to study water uptake and loss in small droplets that contain microplastics. These high-precision measurements will allow us to begin to understand the role of microplastics in cloud droplet growth and the subsequent implications for transport in the atmosphere and climate change. Lead researcher: Thomas Preston.

Ultrathin and Ultrastrong Alternatives for Plastic Films

Proof of concept will be developed that biorenewable, biodegradable, recyclable and water-insoluble ultrathin and ultrastrong transparent films can be made from cellulose by continuous flow casting from dilute solutions. This opens the door to sustainable plastic alternatives, thus tremendously reducing the amount of plastic waste. Lead researcher: Theo van de Ven.

All-Plant-Derived Biodegradable Packaging with Mechano-Bactericidal Activity

The release of organic preservatives and inorganic nanoparticles incorporated into antimicrobial packaging materials presents a risk to consumers. At the same time, petroleum-based food packaging, like any other short-term storage packaging materials, is a serious sustainability challenge. This project is developing a mechano-bactericidal, biodegradable, material from natural polymers that is suitable for food storage. Lead researcher: Yixiang Wang.

2019 – Faculty

GLAD – the Global Lake Analysis Dashboard

This project produced new ways to download, view, and understand lake data from around the world. Researchers developed an application in Google Earth Engine to dynamically browse more than a dozen properties of each lake in the world and created a new tool that, for any selected lake, identifies other lakes that are the most similar. Recognizing that sustainable management of resources requires both top-down and bottom-up approaches, this tool provides interested citizens a way to understand more about their local lake and that it exists in the broader context of regional, continental, and global patterns. Lead researcher: Jeffrey Cardille.

Coupling Microbial Metabolism and Biogeochemistry to Identify Mechanisms that Mitigate Positive Feedback Effects of Thawing Permafrost Peatlands to Climate Change

Permafrost peatland soils store vast quantities of carbon. As it thaws under a warming climate, soil microbial communities could release much of this carbon as greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, creating a runaway feedback effect on warming. Combining molecular chemistry, genomics, and isotopic geochemistry, researchers will determine the microbial controls regulating if and when positive versus negative feedback effects to climate change occur. Lead researcher: Cynthia Kallenbach.

Global Contaminant Fate Model and Data Development to Screen for Chemicals in Rivers and Lakes

To protect our surface water ecosystems and to sustain their benefits to society, including the provision of safe drinking water, we need to understand the sources and distribution of potentially harmful substances in the river and lake network. This project developed a contaminant fate model and associated data, in particular information about wastewater treatment plants, to screen for the concentrations of contaminants in the aquatic environment at large scales, including down-the-drain household chemicals, pharmaceuticals, microplastics, and nanoparticles. Lead researcher: Bernhard Lehner.

Fabrication of Nanoporous Membranes for Blue Energy Harvesting

There is growing need to provide local, inexpensive and environmentally friendly power sources for a wide range of miniaturized electronic devices that operate at low power level. This project focuses on the development and optimization of membranes for the exploitation of the green and sustainable salinity gradient energy that is released whenever sources of fresh and salt water are mixed. Lead researcher: Walter Reisner.

Mining the Chicken Microbiome for Anti-Infective Probiotics to Eliminate the Need for Prophylactic Antibiotics

The growing antibiotic resistance (ABR) crisis has led to legislation that came into effect in December 2018 that restricts the use of antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention. This work focused on the discovery of novel probiotic bacteria that are able to reduce the incidence of pathogenic bacterial infections in high-density poultry production operations. The hypothesis is that there are commensal bacteria in the healthy avian intestine (most probiotics were originally isolated from the intestine), that are capable of effectively killing pathogens, and thus preventing infection. In progression towards this goal, we have established a bacterial culture collection of commensal bacteria from layer and broiler chickens, and have started to characterize the ability of each of these commensal bacteria to antagonize bacterial pathogens. Lead researcher: Jennifer Ronholm.

Combined CO2 Reduction and Biomass Upgrading System for Sustainable Production of Fuels

We have developed an electrochemical system which combines CO2 conversion into feedstocks, and biowaste upgrading. This fund enabled us to improve the energy efficiency of the electrochemical system that is crucial for its commercialization. It also helped us to develop new catalysts for hydroxymethylfurfural (a biomass-derived chemical readily accessible from renewable resources) conversion into furandicarboxylic acid (one of the top 12 value-added chemicals for bio-refinery) with a throughput of 10x higher than most reported systems in literature. This improvement in reaction throughput promises for its viable commercialization and a faster transition toward sustainable energy storage and feedstock production. Lead researcher: Ali Seifitokaldani.

  Electrochemical reactors for CO2 conversion. Catalysts, 2020. 10(5), 473. See open access publication

2019 – Student led projects

Seasonal Energy Storage through Means of Phase Change of Water Contained in Soil

There is a growing need to incorporate renewables into our energy consumption budget. A lot of work has been done in including renewables into the electrical grid, however another way to do so is through heating and cooling. Directly incorporating renewables into heating and cooling systems allows for relatively easy and high impact reduction in emissions. This project seeks to use the cold from winter to cool during the summer and the heat from summer to warm during winter. Lead researchers: Matthew Fong & Agus Sasmito.

On the performance of ground coupled seasonal thermal energy storage for heating and cooling: A Canadian context. Applied Energy, 2019. See publication

Designing Fully Degradable Alternatives to Single-Use Plastics by Upcycling Food Waste

“Biodegradable” cutlery on the market is made from polylactic acid are not biodegradable in practice. This project proposed an alternative made from a blend of starch, edible food industry byproducts, and cellulose. This starch-based cutlery can withstand the rigors of a single meal (hot or cold). After use, the cutlery falls apart in water. A spinoff project explored the use of cellulose for everyday objects. Lead researchers: Nicholas Lin & Nathalie Tufenkji (faculty supervisor).

A New Strategy to Screen Antagonistic bacteria against Staphylococcus aureus for sustainable therapeutics and medical interventions

This project aimed to design and develop a new strategy to screen antagonistic bacteria against S. aureus which causes a broad range of diseases in livestock, including bovine mastitis. Antagonistic bacteria has been suggested as one of the promising alternatives to antibiotics to maintain the sustainability of agriculture since antibiotics are being phased out of usage in Canadian agriculture. To find bacteria that are antagonistic to S. aureus among commensal bacteria, a more effective and efficient screening strategy needs to be developed. A new plasmid  will allow us to label S. aureus with fluorescent proteins and co-culture S. aureus with commensal bacteria to monitor its growth and quorum sensing activity. Lead researchers: Soyoun Park & Jennifer Ronholm.

“Green” Antimicrobial Straws - An Alternative to Synthetic Plastic Straws

In this project, “green” straws were prepared using biopolymers, i.e., chitosan and alginate from waste biomass and evaluated for the possibility as an alternative to synthetic plastic straws. Our “green” straws had uniform microstructure, and showed good properties in terms of compostability in soil, mechanical properties, and stability in water/beverages, etc. Lead researchers: Paola Sully, Benjamin Simpson (faculty supervisor) & Yixiang Wang.

A Compact, Ready-Made Methane Monitoring Station Powered by Leaking Oil and Gas Infrastructure

Fugitive methane emissions from the oil and gas sector represent a significant portion of the greenhouse gas budget in North America, but are still poorly understood in terms of their temporal emission patterns. A necessary step to improve our knowledge of temporal trends in emissions is long-term and continuous monitoring, which requires a power source that can sustain a measurement system. By harnessing fugitive natural gas emissions as a fuel source, our monitoring station will simultaneously reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of a leaking well, and gather long-term temporal data regarding emission patterns. Our project also has potential applications in other fields of methane emission monitoring, such as arctic regions where popular off-grid power sources (e.g. solar panels) are limited in their power generation capabilities. Lead researchers: James William & Mary Kang.

Methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells in Canada and the United States. Environmental Science and Technology, 2021. See publication

Transformation of Soluble Phosphate, a Pollutant within Manure, to an Insoluble, More Sustainable Calcium Phosphate Solid with Waste Concrete

This project aims to solve the problem of excessive soluble phosphate in dairy cattle manure, which limits its application in agriculture. We have developed a process that transfers the soluble phosphate into calcium phosphate minerals with concrete addition, which can be used as a slow-release fertilizer. The greenhouse test indicated that the products provide a similar fertilization effect as the mineral phosphorus fertilizer. Lead researchers: Tian Zhao & Sidney Omelon.

2018– Faculty

3D Printing of Lightweight Sustainable Materials: Wood-Fiber Reinforced Cellular Composites

As 3D printing is currently revolutionizing the manufacturing process of intricate lightweight components with arbitrary topologies, a state-of-the-art technology is developed for transformation of waste woodchips and and sawdust into 3D printed wood-fiber reinforced polymeric cellular composites with engineered architectures and enhanced thermomechanical properties to be used as durable and sustainable structural components. Lead researchers: Hamid Akbarzadeh.

3D printed architected waste wood-fiber reinforced composites. Advanced Engineering Materials, 2020. See publication

Development of an Electrocatalytic Method for the Direct Functionalization of Methane to Aldehydes

Hydrocarbons are perhaps the most common resource available for the generation of valuable synthetic materials such as pharmaceuticals, plastics or other products. Under the MSSI Ideas fund project, our lab demonstrated these feedstocks could be converted directly into useful products through the use of metal catalysis. This offers a new method to directly exploit hydrocarbons in sustainable synthesis, as an alternative to their combustion, and opens the potential to do so with electrochemistry as a clean energy source.

 Lead researchers: Bruce Arndtsen.

A Palladium-Catalyzed C-H Functionalization Route to Ketones via the Oxidative Coupling of Arenes with Carbon Monoxide. Chemical Science, 2020. See open access publication

Supercritical Metal-Water Reactor Proof of Concept

Convenient access to clean and reliable energy sources is key to transitioning away from fossil fuels. This research focuses on using metal-water reactions to provide clean energy on demand. Metal fuels can be processed using renewable energy, such as wind and solar, thereby effectively storing and allowing for the transport of clean energy. The clean energy stored in the metal electrofuels can then be released via metal-water reactions to produce heat and hydrogen for use in a wide range of transportation and stationary power-generation applications. Lead researchers: Jeffrey Bergthorson.

Aluminum and its role as a recyclable, sustainable carrier of renewable energy. Applied Energy, 2020. See publication 

Indigenizing concepts of food security

Traditional food security, based on the sustainable local harvest of wild plants and animals, is a critical natural, health, and cultural asset of Indigenous Peoples globally. Most food security research focuses on market food accessibility and availability. This project will realize a conceptual understanding of food security distinct to Indigenous Peoples Food Systems (IPFS) and valuing Indigenous knowledge. Lead researchers: Treena Delormier.

Green Supramolecular Polymer Assembly Inspired by the Velvet Worm

By mimicking supramolecular self-assembly achieved by nature, we aim to develop a novel bio-inspired paradigm for circular processing of polymeric materials. We will produce stable mechanoresponsive colloidal suspensions of nanoglobules using oppositely charged polymer chains that can be disrupted by mechanical shear, leading to triggered aggregation of polymer chains under controlled conditions. Lead researchers: Matthew Harrington.

Green polymers inspired by biology. McGill Faculty of Science News, 2018. Read article

The Role of Induced Earthquakes on Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Infrastructure in Western Canada

Oil and gas production is the largest emitter of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, in Canada. Methane emissions have been linked to natural earthquakes but the role of induced earthquakes on methane emissions is unclear. Here, we measure and analyze methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure and investigate potential links to earthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing activities in Western Canada. Lead researchers: Mary Kang.

Potential increase in oil and gas well leakage due to earthquakes. Environmental Research Communications, 2019. See open access publication

Why wait for grad school? McGill Alumni News, 2019. Read article

Changing-Climate Resilient Cisgenic Crop Variety Development through Genome Editing

Kushalappa lab at McGill has identified several disease resistance R genes. Some of these genes are mutated in commercial wheat cultivars, such as Pasteur, which will be replaced with functional gene segments from a resistant wheat land race based on genome editing using CRISPR-Cas9 system that does not leave any foreign DNA in the recipient plant. Following proof of concept, this technology can be used to enhance multiple disease resistance in hundreds of wheat and other crop cultivars, saving billions of dollars around the world. Lead researchers: Ajjamada Kushalappa.

Role of laccase gene in wheat NILs differing at QTL-Fhb1 for resistance against Fusarium head blight. Plant Science, 2020. See publication

TaNAC032 transcription factor regulates lignin-biosynthetic genes to combat Fusarium head blight in wheat. Plant Science, 2021. See publication

Engineering Nanocatalysts for Photo-Fixation of Nitrogen into Ammonia

Nitrogen is one of the essential building elements for all living organisms. However, the industrial ammonia synthesis process requires high temperatures and pressures and consumes more than 1% of the world’s annual energy supply. This proposal will combine the expertise of Prof. Li, Prof. Mi, and Prof. Guo to develop sustainable nitrogen-fixation with solar light by using theoretical and experimental means. Lead researcher: C.J. Li.

Efficient nitrogen fixation catalyzed by gallium nitride nanowire using nitrogen and water. iScience, 2019. See open access publication

Potential huge energy savings through nanocatalysts for nitrogen fixation. McGill Faculty of Science News, 2019. Read article

Sustainable Copolymer Additives for Durable Roadway Asphalts

Many of us are familiar with the cracks over roadways during the winter season. Block copolymers have been applied previously as bitumen additives but face several limitations, which can be overcome by using controlled radical polymerization. Applying this method makes the process greener: polymerizations can now be done with a continuous aqueous phase. Further, the feedstocks will be derived from sustainable sources. Lead researcher: Milan Maric.

Nitroxide-Mediated Polymerization of Bio-Based Farnesene with a Functionalized Methacrylate. Macromolecular Reaction Engineering, 2019. See publication

Resilience Planning in New Master-Planned Cities

This project is concerned with how new cities built from scratch around the world are adapting to or anticipating climate change and disasters. The research seeks to understand how new city projects are planned and executed, and how they may expose a large number of people to disasters and the effects of climate change in the coming decades. The study examines over 100 new city projects and focuses on six case studies in Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. Lead researcher: Sarah Moser.

New cities may make millions more vulnerable to climate change. McGill Faculty of Science News, 2018. Read article

Developing the Use of Seawater eDNA to Track Species Responses to Environmental Change

Environmental DNA (eDNA) metabarcoding technology can allow a sample of seemingly empty seawater to reveal nearby fish and invertebrates with remarkable speed and accuracy. Prof. Sunday's team has applied this technology and tested sampling designs that will bring us into an era of tracking of biodiversity in near-real time. The work funded by the MSSI has produced exciting results that reveal the density of samples that are needed to observe a regional fish and invertebrate fauna. In collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Hakai Institute, the team has leveraged this early success to win a Genomic Applications Partnership Project with Genome Canada to optimize the approach for monitoring Canada’s Marine Protected Areas. Lead researcher: Jennifer Sunday.

Predicting the fate of eDNA in the environment and implications for studying biodiversity. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences,2019). See open access publication

Using DNA technology to track marine life. McGill Faculty of Science News, 2018. Read article

2018– Student led projects


SymBioSyn worked with the First Nations Regional Adult Education Center (FNRAEC) in Kahnawa:ke to pilot a Food Sovereignty Leadership Programme. Using methods of collaborative-action research, the students ran intercultural workshops that would help the group self-direct toward Food Sovereignty outcomes for their community. This included a community garden designed, built, and maintained collaboratively between Kahnawa:ke youth and McGill students associated with SymBioSyn. Lead researchers: Yves Abanda & Treena Delormier.

Using Air and Solar Energy as a Sustainable Source of Water

Presently, water scarcity affects every continent. In 10 years, more than two-thirds of the world's population could be living under water stressed conditions. However, a significant amount of water resides in our atmosphere, a resource that if made available, would help solve the problem of water scarcity. Taking on this challenge, we have come up with an idea to extract humidity from air using low grade thermal energy (e.g., solar heat), and create water through a novel process. Lead researchers: Kevin Kelly & Jan Kopyscinski.

Development of a Solar-Powered UAV

The aim of this project was to design, manufacture and test a solar-powered drone that carries a multispectral camera for use in large scale crop monitoring. The initial prototypes of both the airframe and power management system were completed and the project lead engaged over 20 undergraduate students and three additional faculty supervisors in the project. Although the design was ultimately unfeasible, the students involved learned invaluable lessons in engineering design and project management. Lead researchers: Callaghan Wilmott & Jovan Nedic.

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