V. Ward Research Group: Sustainable Ways to Manufacture Petroleum-derived Materials & Environmental Change Advocacy
Research by: Sophie Campbell, Written by: Jacqueline Omdara
For more information about Valerie Ward and the chemical research the V. Ward Research Group does at the University of Waterloo, check out their website and email below!
Q: Can you explain the focus of your research in a few sentences?
A: My research is focused on finding more sustainable ways to manufacture the petroleum derived materials and chemicals used in almost every industry. We use biological methods to produce these products from renewable resources. This can include things like cultivation of bacteria using glucose as a renewable feedstock or can include the cultivation of microalgae using CO2 and sunlight in a carbon neutral process to make these products.
Q: What motivated you to go into research (and specifically into biochemical engineering)?
A: Funny enough, when I was little, I watched a movie about a biochemist lugging a gas chromatography machine (GC) into the Amazon rainforest to try to identify a compound that they thought could cure cancer. I guess that sort of stuck because when I got to university, I studied biochemistry and I did a bunch of co-op placements in research labs. I realized later on that applied research in biochemical engineering was really what I wanted to do. Improving the way we manufacture goods will have wide reaching effects and improve the lives of people around the world, so that’s what I chose to focus on.
Q: What do you find to be the most interesting aspect of your research?
A: Biological systems are rarely straightforward or simple. There is always something more to learn or to investigate.
Q: How can we encourage the public to opt for renewable fuels/materials in place of those formed from fossil fuels?
A: This has been a challenge for years. Most people want to support products that are more environmentally friendly, but they cannot afford to pay increased prices of everything they purchase, so they might be selective in what they support. The best way to get people to opt for these products is to produce them at the same cost as the alternatives, because when faced with two equal products at the same price, most people would choose the environmentally friendly product. The hard part is that environmentally friendly products cost more to make because we are basically paying for the environmental impacts ahead of time, whereas petroleum products do not include the price of the environmental damage upfront. Now, I’m sure the government can enact policies to rectify these differences, but I’ll let the policy researchers recommend what would work best!
Q: Is it possible to scale-up your biofuel production processes to an industrially viable scale? If not, what would it take to get to that point?
A: Biofuels are very challenging. Like I mentioned before, they cost more and if you sell them at the market price, you would be losing money. This is because these are low value commodity chemicals. The research in this area is really heading towards something called biorefining. Biorefining is when you produce multiple products from the same feedstock. This is analogous to the petroleum industry who take oil and convert it to thousands of different chemicals. Some of those chemicals are “specialty” products for which they can charge a premium. Some are low value products like fuel. But altogether, they increase their profits by selling all of the products, not just the bulk fuel products. Biorefineries do the same thing. They produce some higher value products in smaller quantities and that might allow them to sell the biofuel at market prices without losing money on the whole. This seems to be the most promising route and many bioethanol plants are already doing this.
Q: What do you think is the greatest environmental challenge we face as a society?
A: I don’t think most people realize the number of products they use that are derived from oil. Probably a lot of your clothes, shoes, electronics, medications, and the majority of the things in an average home are made from petrochemicals or contain adhesives, coatings, etc. that are made from oil. Until we find alternatives for all of these products, we won’t be able to stop using fossil fuels.
Q: Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the number and extent of changes needed to correct our trajectory on this planet? If so, how do you counteract that feeling?
A: I think that humans in general are pretty ingenious when needed. There are many brilliant people out there working on these problems and I think we can fix them if the motivation (and money) is there. I guess I am a perpetual optimist, so I don’t usually get overwhelmed. But I do often find the funding to move these technologies forward are lacking and that can be extremely frustrating for someone that has the motivation and skills to try and address these problems, including me!
Q: Do you have any advice for young people trying to enact positive environmental change in our world?
A: The way our economy currently works does not directly reward environmentally friendly manufacturing practices. Governments can change this through policy changes and by enacting laws or supporting programs that reward these behaviors. But policies can only do so much, we cannot expect people and systems to change if there are no alternatives. So, we need more scientists and engineers to develop these processes and show they can be viable businesses. I work in a Department of Chemical Engineering and there is a general perception that this is an outdated field that only studies petroleum processing. That is where Chem Eng started, but we’ve become much more than that. Chemical engineers focus on transforming materials and energy into something useful. These days, we really focus on how to do that in a more sustainable way by using the principles of Green Process Engineering and inherently safer design. We try to minimize waste, use less toxic products, and reduce the carbon footprint of a process as much as possible. Many students in their fourth-year projects choose to study bioprocesses for converting agricultural wastes into useful things like biodegradable plastics or biogas for clean electricity generation, how to make better batteries for storing solar energy, or how to reuse or recycle rubber that fills our landfills for example. I hardly ever see a project without an environmental motivation! There is going to be more and more need for the people with the skills to convert old processes into new cleaner processes as we move away from fossil fuels, so I think the outlook for chemical engineers is fantastic and they can really make a big impact on the world since they often work on large scale processes that can affect many people.
Q: Finally, for our followers/readers who are interested in research or graduate studies: are you open to co-ops or new graduate students?
I do take graduate students, and sometimes co-op students. Students that are interested can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.