New profs working to protect a scarce resource

Water is a limited resource, and a very costly one. On March 22 we celebrate World Water Day, which reminds us to protect this valuable and diminishing reserve.

The Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry at U of T strives to contribute to this vital mission and in 2021 hired two new faculty members who specialize in this area. Professors Jay Werber and Chris Lawson directly impact water conservation through their research and help us leverage this critical resource.

Jay WerberDue to increasing pressures from climate change and population growth, regions around the world are suffering from severe water shortages. Effective technologies for water management are becoming even more essential. Additionally, water is frequently used as the solvent for industrial processes. This includes Canadian legacy industries such as mining and metals and pulp and paper, as well as emerging industries such as resource recovery from waste and bioprocessing. Professor Werber and his team are trying to make aqueous separations more effective and efficient in all of these realms.

“My lab focuses on designing membrane materials for aqueous separations, which include water purification and the purification of chemicals and metal ions. We have a particularly strong focus on reverse osmosis, which is the best method for desalination,” says Professor Werber. “Membranes offer huge advantages, since they can be chemically designed to achieve the desired separation.”

The Werber Lab aims to address water scarcity, electronics waste recycling, and replacing petroleum-derived chemicals with sustainably-derived chemicals. In terms of innovation, Professor Werber’s lab has the expertise to synthesize, characterize, and test membrane materials that enable performance that is not achievable using commercial materials.

Chris LawsonThe wastewater treatment technologies we use today focus purely on purifying water, missing bountiful opportunities for recovering materials and/or energy from this energy- and nutrient-rich wastewater. Canada has enormous potential to recover renewable bioenergy and bioproducts from organic matter present in wastewaters and solid waste, while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with their disposal (13% of national methane emissions). Anaerobic digestion is a key technology for converting organic waste into renewable energy using microbiomes. However, existing technologies only convert about 50% of waste volumes. Additionally, the produced biogas has a relatively low market value. This often renders anaerobic digestion economically infeasible in Canada and limits the amount of waste recovered as a resource.

“The research in my lab focuses on harnessing the metabolic processes of anaerobic microbiomes for sustainable wastewater treatment and the recovery of valuable chemicals from waste resources. This is accomplished using the most advanced and innovative approaches from systems and synthetic biology, microbial ecology, and bioengineering,” explains Professor Lawson.

Professor Lawson’s current research will generate biotechnological advances that accelerate Canada’s transition to a sustainable circular economy through resource recovery. It will not only establish new anaerobic biotechnologies for producing valuable bioproducts from organic wastes, it will also deliver fundamental discoveries on the metabolic strategies and interactions used by anaerobic microorganisms during waste deconstruction and conversion, as well as create new genetic tools for manipulating non-model anaerobic microorganisms. His work will provide the scientific knowledge and biotechnologies needed to build robust and versatile waste-to-resource biorefineries for Canada’s emerging bioeconomy.