Posts By: rwallace

Methane-Converting Viruses Could Play a Role in Combating Climate Change

 

In a variety of environments — lakes, soils, even mining wastewater — bacteria carry out a wide range of chemical reactions. But a new study from Professor Lesley Warren (CivMin, Lassonde Institute) and her collaborators suggests that previously unknown viruses might also play a key role. The biocatalytic power of these organisms could one day be harnessed in the fight against climate change.

The past year has demonstrated just how powerful and disruptive viruses can be, not only to our health but also risks to our social structures, economies and even our planet.

But viruses don’t only cause disease in humans; plenty of them also infect bacteria. Known as bacteriophages, or just phages, the vast majority of these viruses are poorly understood due to the challenges of growing and studying them in the lab.

However, earlier this year, a new paper in Nature outlined surprising findings from this field: the discovery that some naturally-occurring phages have very large genomes. This is in contrast to previously held understanding that because viruses rely on their host’s replication machinery to multiply, they contain very few genes.

“The discovery that these viruses have large genomes and possess potentially functional genes leads us to ask: what can these genes do?” says Warren. “What are their undiscovered capabilities? What are we underestimating about them?”

Warren and her colleagues use a technique known as metagenomics to learn about wild viruses without having to culture them directly. By extracting and studying viral genetic sequences from wastewater, soil or other media, they can learn about the biochemical processes these life forms may be able to perform.

Last month, Warren, along with Professor Jill Banfield and Dr. Lin-Xing Chen (first author) of the University of California, Berkeley, co-authored a paper in Nature Microbiology  that offers some answers.

The team sampled freshwater systems around the world, including Syncrude Canada’s Base Mine Lake, a commercial size demonstration of water capped tailings technology in northern Alberta. Owned by Syncrude Canada, Base Mine Lake serves as a research facility to test and demonstrate new tailings management technologies and to improve reclamation success outcomes for pit lakes.

Professor Warren and her collaborators conducting environmental sampling at the Base Mine Lake site. (Photo courtesy Lesley Warren)
Professor Warren and her collaborators conducting environmental sampling at the Base Mine Lake site. (Photo courtesy Lesley Warren)

From this location and others, the research team identified 22 large-genome phages that encode a critical gene called PmoC, which are called PmoC-phage. This PmoC gene is similar to genes present in bacteria that are capable of carrying out methane oxidation.

“Methane is a critical contributor to greenhouse gas emissions — it is 14 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere,” says Warren. “When oxidized, either by bacteria or perhaps as now as this paper identifies, viruses, it gets converted to carbon dioxide. That’s still a greenhouse gas, but it’s much less harmful than methane.”

The presence of PmoC-phage and bacteria capable of methane oxidation were strongly correlated with each other. In fact, the team determined that some of the most rapidly-growing, methane-eating bacteria were infected by three PmoC-phages at one time. These findings indicate that PmoC-phages may actually be increasing methane consumption by these bacteria.

On a fundamental level, these results provide more evidence that viruses are more than just infection vectors of other organisms — they may be important players in key environmental processes that regulate the planet.

In the future, harnessing naturally-occurring entities, such as viruses in addition to microorganisms, to change one gas into another could have important implications in the fight against climate change. This is especially true in places such as the Alberta oil sands, where methane emissions are of concern.

“Exploring these PmoC-phages in Base Mine Lake can help us design a bio-tech solution that would be cost-effective for industry, while helping fight greenhouse gas emissions and climate change,” says Warren. “Our work with Syncrude Canada over the past ten years is helping to develop research-powered solutions and technology for their real-world challenges.”

“Our analyses from not just Base Mine Lake, but other freshwater contexts globally, suggest that these PmoC-phages have the potential to impact methane consumption as well as the carbon cycle of the surrounding environments,” says Professor Banfield. “The inferences of this study expand our understanding of phage capabilities and highlight new ways for us to mitigate and modulate other aspects of our environment, perhaps in even larger contexts.”


Making pyrrhotite waste remediation pay for itself

Researchers at the University of Toronto are working on developing a bioleaching process to extract nickeliferous pyrrhotite waste from tailings ponds in the Sudbury area in order to remediate the land and recover up to $11 billion worth of nickel

University of Toronto researchers are working to develop a bioleaching process that could help mining companies reclaim tailings ponds and recover up to $11 billion worth of nickel from them in the process. Courtesy of Glencore

Bacterial mutants and hydrogen peroxide may be keys to reclaiming value from tailings ponds clean-up

By Alexandra Lopez-Pacheco (Article was originally published in CIM Magazine here. )

While the technology could offset the cost of remediating the tailings ponds, according to the researchers the process to extract nickel from pyrrhotite is complex. A combination of bacterial mutants and hydrogen peroxide may be key to not only remove reactive material from the tailings and leave behind a benign product, but to extract billions of dollars worth of nickel and other metals.


MSE Professor, Erin Bobicki, awarded NSERC Strategic Partnerships Grant

Professor Erin Bobicki is among five U of T Engineering researchers awarded NSERC Strategic  Partnerships Grant. Bobicki ‘s project will investigate the potential viability of new strategies on “Combining CO2 storage with mineral processing”: certain mineral processing wastes have the capacity to store CO2 in mineral form. CO2 also has the potential to be used as a novel reagent to enhance the separation of minerals and stabilize waste materials. This presents an opportunity to both store CO2 captured from flue gases or other industrial sources and enhance the extraction of metals from ores. Depending on the regulatory framework or incentives around CO2 sequestration, these processes could add new revenue streams for mineral processing companies.

In total, the program invested more than $2.6 million in U of T Engineering and more than $3.8 million across the entire University.

Read the full article by Tyler Irving.


From between a rock and a hard place (for women) to an equitable and more profitable place for all: Why gender diversity in mining is vital to the strength and future of the industry

Mining’s “not so secret” secret
It is an accepted industry-wide truth: mining has a gender diversity issue.

The industry lags behind most other sectors in tackling this systemic problem with recent statistics showing women represent only 16 per cent of the Canadian mining workforce compared to 48 per cent of the overall Canadian workforce.

The challenge of building a gender-balanced workforce stretches from site to the boardroom. According to a 2016 PWC study, the mining industry has the lowest representation of women on boards of any other sector, including oil and gas, technology, and manufacturing. Additionally, out of the top 500 globally listed mining companies, only 8 per cent of executive officers in company leadership roles are women (Mining.com).

Whiffs of change
Between 2018 and 2019, mining companies such as Agnico Eagle, Barrick Gold and Newmont Goldcorp have started making strides in narrowing the gender gap. For example, in 2018, Agnico Eagle became an active participant in The International Women in Resources Mentorship Program (IWRMP), a collaboration between International Women in Mining, Women in Mining Canada and Metisphere. IWRMP connects senior global female mining leaders with mentees in a variety of occupations across the entire mining cycle. In early 2019 Barrick Gold began a certification process for gender equality at its Pueblo Viejo mine in the Dominican Republic. Newmont Goldcorp’s CEO, Gary Goldberg, pledged support for Paradigm for Parity, a global corporate initiative to achieve gender parity by 2030 and holding true to that commitment, Newmont most recently appointed three female executives after their merger with Goldcorp.  These are all important steps, however for systemic transformative change, these types of initiatives need to be happening industry wide and with clear accelerated targets to achieve parity and inclusivity.

It just makes business sense
It has been shown time and again that companies prioritizing diversity and inclusivity are 21 per cent more likely to deliver “above-average profitability” and greater long-term value with the key correlation linked to gender diverse executive teams (McKinsey).  Why might this be so? Mining companies prioritizing gender parity as a strategic objective possess a diversity of ideas, experiences, cognitive frameworks and expertise that becomes an advantage in a competitive market, e.g.  facing volatile commodity prices.  A diverse workforce is more adaptable and productive; delivering higher performance for shareholders and stakeholders (McKinsey).

Deloitte also revealed through their 2018 Global Human Capital Trends survey of mining companies, that diversity is correlated “to better performance and corporate decision-making” indicating that leaders today must prioritize corporate diversity and inclusion imperatives.

 CEO and President of Teck, Don Lindsay states, “An inclusive and diverse workforce can lead to improved health and safety performance, increased innovation and productivity, and better decision-making.”

Studies have shown that greater diversity at a company can lead to better financial performance, especially when seen at the board and senior management level (Shecter, Barbara, What’s a woman on the board worth to stock investors? About 300 bps, according to CIBC study. Financial Post, 2017). Underscoring what inclusivity delivers for better margins, a 2016 PWC study found a higher average profit margin overall (23 per cent) for mining companies with mixed gender boards, compared to the average net profit margin for the top 100 mining companies (20 per cent).

Building the Diversity Pipeline: Recruitment, retention and promotion
While the business case is clear: women in leadership is good for business – the challenge of retention reflected by the extremely  high attrition rate of mid-career female talent is a critical issue across the industry.

There have been great efforts by educational institutions like the Department of Civil and Mineral (our graduating class was 35 per cent female in 2019) and other initiatives like Vale’s Voisey’s Bay Underground Training Program (seeing 4 females of 10 incoming trainees) to attract females to the industry. However, even with increased female recruitment focus, systemic corporate barriers persist stifling women throughout the duration of their career and resulting in a ‘leaky pipeline’. This leak has been highlighted most recently through the #MeTooMining movement where  female mining professionals have come forward to voice their negative experiences on mine sites, in boardrooms and throughout the industry as well as their reasons for leaving the sector all together.

This pain point is an especially important one for an industry that requires maximum efficiency, resiliency and adaptability in order to survive and thrive. The loss of experience, competencies and decision-making skills residing in these women must be addressed with initiatives to tackle biased corporate culture.

Women face unique challenges in mining compared to their male counterparts, as a study concluded by Women in Mining Canada (Women in Mining Canada, Ramp-Up: A Study on the Status of Women in Canada’s Mining and Exploration Sector (Women in Mining Canada, February 2010). The study cited: work culture, lack of mentors, perception of their skills and work-life conflicts as some of the key barriers to female career advancement. In particular, fly-in fly-out mine sites were of concern for family planning and other life commitments the study found.

Where to start? Looking at the percentage of women at each phase of the career cycle is a productive and meaningful way for mining companies to measure the health of their workforce and identify where barriers and biases occur. Monitoring imbalances in gender pay gaps, gender-bias performance metrics, the ratio of eligible women versus promotion rates of women, or their odds of advancement compared to their male colleagues, are all ways mining companies can ensure their business operations are fully supporting and thus retaining women in the workplace.

Change comes from the top down
Transforming a culture requires commitment across an entire line of business; but mining company CEO’s dedicating efforts to this inclusivity imperative see the greatest results. Building a culture of inclusivity requires the active endorsement, sponsorship and amendment of business objectives by senior leadership.  Top executives must be the agent of change to reform the power structure and dissuade systematic unconscious bias.  Without this top-down culture shift, on-site employees will never substantively engage, and transformation will not take place. For this change, and its associated boost to company profits to happen in our lifetime, rather than at the current glacial rate of change, we need more women on boards and in leadership positions now.

 “Companies should require, not ask that executives promote, recruit and include women,” stated Cynthia Carrol the former CEO of Anglo America (2007-2013).

These concerns are gaining more traction with top mining leadership who are making both the ethical and business case for a dramatic culture shift.

Andrew Mackenzie, CEO, BHP says this about the gender parity goal at their Annual Meeting, “It will demand that we question our own biases when we make decisions, that we make our workplaces more flexible and that we challenge dated stereotypes about jobs in the resources industry.” Mr. Mackenzie recently said in an interview with the Sydney Herald, “It is about tapping “the best brains in the planet”, Mackenzie says, including younger people “who are at their most productive, their most inspirational, their most quick-thinking, their most quick-witted – we need to be attractive to them by having a modern approach to sexuality and race and inclusion. When they get here there should be absolutely no discrimination, and a sense that they can flourish.”

There had been unconscious bias in the industry and that women had been disadvantaged. In the company’s “most inclusive and diverse sites” performance is 15 per cent higher.

Around the world, countries are taking notice of the sizable deficit of female representation on boards. Though not strictly focusing on mining companies, the emphasis on gender parity through legislation associated with mandatory quotas or comply-explain regimes is sparking much debate.

While quotas can be helpful to provide measurable targets, there must be meaningful change for gender parity to take hold and transform a business. Women’s qualifications must hold equal weight to their male counterparts. The persistence of the ‘old boys network’, must make way for equitable appointments based on merits. With only 16 per cent representation in the overall workforce, women’s networks are limited, and male champions are needed to create dial-moving solutions.

The Lassonde Institute of Mining

As men, early in our career or later on in our career, we need to take every opportunity to come alongside our female colleges and support and advocate for them. We need to listen and champion for their efforts and realize it is everyone’s responsibility to make this industry welcoming to all. Having women in this sector makes us smarter and more resilient for a future where vital resources are critical.
Ian Pearce (Chair of the Board, New Gold; Director, Nexa Resources; Vice Chair, Outotec and Chair, MineSense Technologies).

Ian Pearce, an active industry advisor and champion for the Lassonde Institute, works alongside an all-women leadership team and first-ever woman director, Professor Lesley Warren, to develop a new vision for the 20-year old Institute.

Gender parity is not just seen at the L/I leadership level, but also in our top research pool of principal investigators. Over 50% of our L/I principle investigators are women. This feat, the likes of which other mining programs and institutes have not yet achieved, has been made possible by the catalyzing efforts of Dean Emerita Cristina Amon of the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto. Her persistent championing efforts towards diversity, inclusivity and parity within the Faculty additionally supported by Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering’s chair, Professor Brent Sleep, have made this positive change possible at the Lassonde Institute.

The future of mining depends on diversity in mining
A diverse mining industry will mean a workforce that is flexible, adaptable and well prepared to tackle uncertainty. Canada’s mining sector could and should be global leaders in driving this transformative change. The facts tell us that in the process, they would gain significant competitive advantage and position themselves to reap massive rewards.

By Lesley Warren 

This article originally published in foundations magazine


Prof. Paul Young appointed to Royal Society of Canada

Prof. Paul Young (Photo courtesy the Royal Society of Canada)

CivMin Prof. Paul Young has recently been appointed to the position of International (Foreign) Secretary of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) and a member of Council. “I felt very honoured and humbled to be asked,” said Young of the appointment. “I’m very happy to take on the role.”

The RSC, founded in 1882, is also known as the Academies of Arts, Humanities and Sciences of Canada. Young has been involved for a number of years as a Fellow of the RSC and served on its Governance and Ethics Committee.

At the University of Toronto, Young’s impressive titles include his current role as Professor Emeritus and Senior Fellow Massey College, and has formerly served as the Vice-President, Research and Innovation (2007-2014), as well as Chair of the Department of Civil Engineering and Director of the Lassonde Institute for Mining. As an engineering geophysicist he has focused his research, and engineering career, on developing seismic methods and instrumentation to monitor fractures and rock quality. Over the past 40 years, he has pioneered techniques for monitoring and interpreting induced seismicity in the mining, petroleum and nuclear waste disposal industries.

Part of Young’s role is to liaise with other global academies and to engage collectively with G7, G20 and Commonwealth initiatives. This is a volunteer role, with a three-year appointment, so he will be continuing with regular U of T activities and commitments in parallel. In essence, the role is to research and assess, “Matters thought to be significant that can be brought to the political arena.”

With in-person meetings, especially those requiring international travel, impossible and now requiring a digital fix Young offered, “I’m now working with other people of the academies on a lot of Zoom calls.” The scheduled G7 meeting of global leaders was to be held in the U.S. this year (a video conference is to be substituted), so required work on scientific statements agreed to be brought forward to the political leaders for consideration. The result is three topics sent to G7 academies: Digital Health, The Nature and Importance of Basic Research, and Global Declines of Insect Populations and Potential Erosion of Vital Ecosystem Services.

When asked if he had sought out or applied for the position, a modest Young declared, “A call came out of the blue,” in reference to contact from the RSC president.

By Phill Snel, Original Story Appeared Here


Prof. Gisele Azimi explains the value of recycling rare-earth elements in the National Post

If current trends continue, at least six essential elements used to make smartphones will run out within 100 years, Britain’s Royal Chemistry Society warns. GETTY IMAGES

Gisele Azimi’s lab has developed a way to extract rare earths from devices. It uses carbon dioxide to dissolve them, while other processes use acids that generate a lot of nasty waste products. However, the process has yet not been scaled up, though she hopes that see that within a decade. In the meantime, it’s much cheaper to continue sourcing rare earths from China.

Find out more about the value of recycling rare-earth elements.


Prof. Gisele Azimi receives 2020 CSChE Innovation Award

Professor Gisele Azimi (ChemE, MSE) is the 2020 recipient of the CSChE Innovation Award presented by the Chemical Institute of Canada. This award recognizes Azimi’s distinguished contribution as an early career researcher to the field of chemical engineering while working in Canada.

Azimi is an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair joint-appointed between the Departments of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and Materials Science & Engineering at the University of Toronto. She established the Laboratory for Strategic Materials in 2014, conducting research on addressing sustainability challenges in terms of energy, environment, and critical materials. She has received several prestigious awards and has delivered 25 invited talks in renowned national and international conferences and universities including MIT. She is on the editorial board of The Canadian Journal of Chemical Engineering and Scientific Reports and she is the lead organizer of Rare Metal Symposia in renowned national and international conferences including COM and TMS.

Not only is she pushing the limits of science and technology in her field, she does so in collaboration with 11 top-ranked industrial sponsors, who understand and benefit from her unique approach to solving real world problems. She has published over 40 journal articles with more than 1500 citations. She also has 15 patent applications with two patents granted. She has grown her research group to 18 sole-supervised members in different capacities – undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and research associates. She has graduated 11 Postdoc/PhD/MASc students, 7 placed in the Canadian industry and academia.

Full Story at Chemical Institute of Canada


Professors Gisele Azimi and Arthur Chan awarded new Canada Research Chair positions

Left to right: Professor Gisele Azimi (ChemE, MSE) and Arthur Chan (ChemE) have both been awarded new Canada Research Chairs. (Photo credits, from left: Roberta Baker; courtesy of Arthur Chan)

Story by Tyler Irving, U of T Engineering News

Two U of T Engineering professors have been awarded new Canada Research Chairs.

Professor Gisele Azimi (ChemE, MSE) now holds the Canada Research Chair in Urban Mining Innovation, while Professor Arthur Chan (ChemE) is the new Canada Research Chair in Atmospheric Chemistry and Health.

Azimi’s research focuses on innovative ways to recover valuable elements from unconventional sources. These include rare earth elements, such as neodymium and dysprosium, which are needed for the types of batteries and magnets found in technologically advanced products such as smartphones, electric vehicles and wind turbines.

Using unconventional techniques such as supercritical fluid extraction, Azimi and her team are developing new ways to recover these valuable elements from materials that would otherwise be discarded as waste — old electronic devices, batteries left over from electric vehicles, and even byproducts of the aluminum industry.

By converting waste into valuable products and developing extraction methods that are use less energy or produce fewer byproducts, Azimi is at the leading edge of a more sustainable resources sector. Earlier this year, she earned the Faculty’s McCharles Prize for Early Career Research Distinction.

Arthur Chan and his team study air quality, particularly the impact of particulate matter such as organic hydrocarbons or heavy metals on human health. These compounds can be carcinogenic or have other toxic effects. The goal is to measure these pollutants in urban air and trace their sources in order to prevent future pollution.

Recently, the team collected dust from homes in Fort McMurray, Alta., analyzing it for evidence of harmful toxic substances left in the aftermath of the devastating 2016 wildfire. Their study revealed normal levels of contaminants that are comparable to homes across Canada, and so far, no evidence of long-term health risks from fire-ash exposure in residents’ homes.

“These new Canada Research Chairs will accelerate the work of top researchers in critical areas and help translate their innovations into new technologies, processes, and business models,” said Ramin Farnood, Vice-Dean, Research at U of T Engineering. “We are very proud of the work that Professors Azimi and Chan are doing to build a more sustainable world.”


Meeting a critical need in a supercritical way

Story by Tim Lougheed, Chemical Institute of Canada

“”It has been almost a decade since Gisele Azimi was pursuing post-doctoral work at MIT, where she realized just how dependent our technology was becoming on rare earth elements, which pose significant environmental and economic challenges as they are being processed into components for everything from cell phone sensors to wind turbine generators.

“We are utilizing rare earths in all these applications and at the end of the day we just put them into waste,” she says. “The amount of recycling in those days was less than 1% around the world.”

This awareness inspired her to found the Laboratory for Strategic Materials when she later became a faculty member in the University of Toronto’s Departments of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry and Materials Science & Engineering.

Her goal has been to find new ways of obtaining these valuable agents, ideal from places where they have already been used, so that they become renewable commodities that are much easier to obtain. Among the most striking examples of this work has been a novel approach to teasing small amounts of rare earths out of the cracks and crevices of cell phones, without the use of harsh solvents and a great deal of effort.

“Our technique is supercritical fluid extraction,” she explains, noting that at the comparatively modest pressure of about 7000 kPa (about 70 atmospheres) the ubiquitous gas CO2 turns into the perfect tool for the job. “It’s a liquid that behaves like a gas, so it’s a very efficient solvent that can penetrate into solid matrices easily.”

Best of all, she adds, CO2 is abundant, inexpensive, and perfectly safe, so it can be easily obtained and just as easily disposed after use. This outlook characterizes many of the Laboratory’s objectives, which includes activities such as technospheric or urban mining, which adopts a new perspective on waste products such as mine tailings and regards them instead as an accessible source of new agents.

Nor are Azimi’s interests limited to recycling of existing materials. She is also designing innovative hydrophobic surfaces that can be placed inside piping structures that are susceptible to scale, which can eventually clog the flow through these conduits. “We call these new materials ‘scale-phobic,” she says.

Azimi’s accomplishments have earned her the both the 2020 Canadian Journal of Chemical Engineering Lectureship Award and the 2020 CSChE Innovation Award. Later this year she will publish a paper about her work in the Journal, but in the meantime, think about how CO2 can give new life to the most valuable parts of your cell phone.


International Women’s Day 2020

The Lassonde Institute is breaking down barriers across disciplines, institutions, gender and so much more.

Contact Rachel Wallace | Director, Development & Strategy today to learn how you can be part of our ground-breaking work.


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