At the heart of Ingenuity Lab and the groundbreaking research it carries out is Dr Carlo Montemagno, the research initiative’s director and visionary. As a pioneer of nanotechnology, Dr Montemagno is accustomed to breaking down barriers, challenging traditional theories and offering new scientific solutions. It is with this mindset that he has been able to create a unique environment for tackling the globe’s biggest challenges.
Dr Montemagno holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell University in Agricultural and Biological Engineering (1980), a Master of Science degree from Pennsylvania State University in Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering (1990) and a PhD in Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences from the University of Notre Dame (1995).
After completing his undergraduate studies in 1980, he joined the United States Navy and served for 10 years in several senior management positions as a Civil Engineering Corps Officer. He then joined Argonne National Laboratory, where he led laboratory and field investigations developing bioremediation technology for the treatment of hazardous waste. Upon obtaining his PhD in Civil Engineering, he began his academic career as an Assistant Professor at Cornell University in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, where he was a pioneer in the field of nanobiotechnology. In 2006, his career veered, for a time, towards university administration when he became Dean of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Cincinnati.
In 2012, Dr Montemagno was lured back to the world of research when the opportunity to lead a large-scale nanotechnology accelerator initiative in Alberta materialised. His background traversing agricultural and bioengineering, petroleum engineering, and nanotechnology made him an ideal choice to lead the exciting new programme. The opportunity was significant and he viewed Alberta as a land of opportunity with an entrepreneurial spirit; he decided to make the move to Canada. The vision of advancing technologies to solve grand challenges recaptured his imagination. The initiative is now branded as Ingenuity Lab.
Located within the University of Alberta, Canada, Ingenuity Lab is an assembly of multi-disciplinary experts who work closely to develop technological advancements in ways that are not otherwise possible. Not only is Ingenuity Lab different to other initiatives in the way it operates its goal-orientated and holistic approach, but also in the progressive way it conducts research. In this model, limitations on creativity that surround the traditional university faculty model (which rewards individual success and internal competition) are overcome.
With global expansion in mind, Dr Montemagno is using the Ingenuity Lab template to spark new initiatives in other countries as a way to tap into the world’s best talent and solve societal problems using a coordinated approach. This, he believes, will create a far greater chance of success than local, regional or even national efforts.
The New Economy had the opportunity to speak to Dr Carlo Montemagno about his fascinating career. We also learned what inspired him to challenge the status quo in scientific research in order to solve the world’s most pressing humanitarian and environmental problems through science and technology.
What motivated you to study Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and then Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering?
I was essentially driven by curiosity. I’ve always been interested in the way things work and, at that point in time in my career, I didn’t really understand how oil was produced and because I didn’t know anything about it, [Pennsylvania State University] was a good place to go and study.
What you find is that all the principles associated with physics and mathematics transcend all applications in terms of change. So what I came to realise was that the demarcations of disciplines were very artificial. The real path forward for solving problems was identifying the nature of the problem and drawing on all of the physics and mathematics and biological aspects associated with that problem – that meant ignoring traditional disciplinary boundaries.
Well, firstly, it was because I wanted to gain a deeper understanding, and secondly it was the personal motivation to become a great inventor and have the necessary credentials to pursue that path forward.
Cornell is a great university. Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson founded a unique model where anyone can come to learn about anything. It is an organisation that is inclusive; it has no limits on the subject matter that you can investigate or the way you can investigate the subject matter. For me it was the ideal location to begin pursuing my career with a personal objective to solve problems in the areas of agriculture, environment and health.
When I was an undergraduate at Cornell, my advisor was Norm Scott. He’s an extraordinary man and, even as a junior, he took me under his wing. He guided me to write my first funded proposal and gave me my first taste of becoming an independent investigator, pursuing knowledge of my own design, which was limited only by my own intellect and ambition. And it’s a pretty heady experience the first time you are given free rein to pursue your own ideas – and that for me was the moment that let me know that this is what I wanted to do.
My biggest science inspiration is the Wright brothers. They were the first people who systematically pursued the creation of knowledge in a very rigorous way to achieve a technological outcome. There are many scientists who pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but they engaged in a sense of rogue maths for everyone that came afterwards: namely, how do you systematically dissect a complex problem where the solution isn’t known but the end goal was identified? I use that model as we move forward with Ingenuity Lab to try to derive solutions to problems that people previously thought were intractable.
Lonely. In a sense that was because I didn’t fit into a compartment; I was basically out on a limb. The work that made my career to that point was making this molecule that had a little rotor on top. When I sent my proposal to the National Institute of Health, they told me I couldn’t do the engineering, and when I sent it to the engineering director at the National Science Foundation, they told me I couldn’t do the biology. Basically, everybody defined the world based upon what they knew they could do and it left me standing out in the middle. So it was an interesting situation to be in – especially as a junior professor at the time.
I knew I was right so I pursued people who didn’t look at boundaries. And, ultimately, my original work was funded by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has a history of funding work that pushes the envelope. Once I was successful, everyone wanted to fund me! But as for that initial element, DARPA is the agency that I credit with providing me [with] the necessary resources to be successful.
I’m inspired by my grandkids and future generations. Historically, every generation has faced multiple challenges and it seems that the challenges become stiffer all the time. And so my goal is: I want to engage in activities that will enable me to leave the world a better place when I’m gone and establish a path forward so that my grandchildren and their children can have as prosperous a life as we’ve had.
That was a principle reason, actually. I left academic administration as I realised that I could have a bigger impact by engaging in an investigatory avenue that enabled me to address problems I felt weren’t being adequately addressed by the current funding infrastructure. The Government of Alberta gave me a framework that allowed me to pursue this, and this framework has enabled me to begin doing things that hopefully will have a very significant impact globally.
I manage the programmes at Ingenuity Lab as big science projects. Firstly, we have established a coherent framework for leveraging the attributes of higher education, industry and government, so we are able to synergistically blend their needs and resources together to help achieve defined goals. Secondly, I’ve created a multidisciplinary team who coordinate their research around the big challenges. And so, as the success of the project is dependent on everyone's successful contribution to the team, it’s a team success, not an individual’s success. That’s quite different to the way most academic research is conducted. But it is consistent with the big mega science projects that you see in everything from the US space programme to building the super collider in CERN. Of course, there are many people who contribute to make the end goal a reality, and so what I do, on a smaller scale, is establish research enterprises that are focused on making this end goal a reality and bringing on people who want to work as team members, and not as individuals.
Well first off, I think the biggest challenge is water. It's the biggest challenge that we are all faced with globally, and not just in terms of drinking water, but water for use in agricultural production and irrigation. I think there are solutions that we are engaged in that have the opportunity to tackle this problem and change the variability the climate has on the impact of food production and the issues associated with it. The other challenges that we are looking at are areas of food and nutraceuticals; we’ve been able to take low value, low yield commodities and economically transform them into products that provide a high level of value to people. We’re working in the areas of energy and environment also to figure out how to make cleaner energy and how to maximise the utility of the resources that we produce. Finally, we’re working on advanced materials for a number of different things. One of the most exciting is making biologically smart materials that we can use in everything from implants in people, to being able to generate energy or to actively separate one form of material from another. So all these things have a significant role in a number of grand societal challenges associated with the health and prosperity of people.
Through the formation of multidisciplinary teams, coordinated research around big challenges, and managing them with a goal-oriented direction. I think that’s very important and it is an essential element that distinguishes Ingenuity Lab from the way that research is conducted at most institutions.
I view Ingenuity Lab as a template and mechanism for solving today’s difficult societal challenges, and am working to replicate it around the world through the creation of a global network. I would like to replicate it in China, India, Europe and the United States; the idea is that we’ll have global talent who are collectively focused on solving big problems in a coordinated way, as opposed to independent teams, each trying to solve little pieces of the puzzle that don’t provide deployable solutions.
The biggest challenge we face is the same one every organisation faces: we are constrained by the resources of time and money. How to prioritise which projects we undertake and which projects we must defer. Part of the motivation for becoming a global network is to generate additional resources that can be brought to bear to collectively solve more problems across borders.
I think the world is full of smart people. But smart people working independently and without coordination rely on random events to generate big breakthroughs. When people are coordinated and focussed on defined goals, then the breakthroughs will be both more relevant and timely. By understanding that reality and by working on the development of partnerships with people who wish to work together, you can leverage intellectual and financial resources to generate output beyond the value of the individual component pieces.
I think there will be further blurring of the lines between the biotic and abiotic worlds. I think we will see a whole new class of materials and systems with a line between living and non-living that is not quite as sharp and distinct. The systems are going to have the type of functionality that now appears in fantasy and science fiction literature, but will become a reality. We will be able to see things that respond to touch and change shape, we’ll see materials that actively sense their local environment, respond to it and process information internally as being part of the materials. These are all things that are coming, and they are coming very, very quickly.
I think that the availability of water for multiple uses is by far the biggest problem we have globally. If we’re able to solve that problem, a whole suite of other problems, from disease to malnutrition and conflict caused by a lack of resources will go away. If we can provide enough water to sustain agricultural production so that everybody can be fed and so that nobody is subject to disease from unsanitary conditions, the root cause of much of the world’s misery will be resolved.
The biggest obstacle – and you’ve heard this many times – is being afraid to take risks. Everybody wants to be seen to be the leader but, when push comes to shove, they always end up looking either for exemplars (somebody who has done it before) or they want to fund activities in which the certainty of success is guaranteed. The end result is that the rate of progress is slowed; I think it’s economically inefficient and it doesn’t provide a chance for the breakthrough event that public and private sectors want and expect when they fund research and development activities. They need to be unafraid to take risks, they need to fund research based upon globally, or at least regionally, significant challenges and have the research directed at solving those challenges in a coordinated way. Saying that you want to deal with new ways of solving x, but then funding proposals to solve y because success is assured, or providing funding at a low level will not solve significant challenges; instead, you end up with a bunch of irrelevant publications and, at best, incremental advancement.
My biggest achievement is my family, for sure: my grandchildren. The second would be my intellectual family: the students who I educated and are now productively working in the world and making a difference.
The world’s leading scientific minds have done much to bring the subject of climate change to the fore; the issue is now widely viewed as the single-most defining challenge of our time. Severe, widespread and irreversible impacts associated with climate change – extreme weather, coastal flooding – are real for everyone. However, disadvantaged people and communities will be hardest hit.
US President Obama, in a recent White House press release, notes that: “14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred in the first 15 years of this century and last year was the warmest year ever. The most vulnerable among us – including children, older adults, people with heart or lung disease, and people living in poverty – are the most at risk from the impacts of climate change. Taking action now is critical.”
Efforts to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions have been slow to gain traction, but progress is now being made. Societal polluting behaviours are being altered through public awareness. Heightened interest in solar, tidal, wind and hydroelectric power are the positive products of pressure to curb emissions. It is now recognised that if we are to succeed in altering man’s impact on climate change technological solutions must be developed and globally adopted. This requires that the solutions minimally impact or even encourage economic growth and prosperity. The task is not simply to develop clean alternatives to fossil fuel but to create solutions that enable the effective use of fossil fuels and positively impact the global environment.
Importantly, the IPCC expressly recognised that: “Adaptation and mitigation are complementary strategies for reducing and managing the risks of climate change. Substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades can reduce climate risks in the 21st century and beyond, increase prospects for effective adaptation, reduce the costs and challenges of mitigation in the longer term, and contribute to climate-resilient pathways for sustainable development.”
The release of the IPCC report, in combination with the reams of evidence offered up to policymakers in recent years, has done much to kickstart a backlash against fossil fuels and inspire a drive towards energy alternatives. Alternatives are only now beginning to gain traction. Of concern, it appears that overambitious promises regarding alternatives threaten to obscure important complementary approaches. Solar energy and carbon pricing, for example, account for much of the discussion on the topic so far while other technical approaches, including Ingenuity Lab’s, are quietly gaining momentum.
Through nanotechnology, Ingenuity Lab is reconceiving the ways in which humans understand and interact with the natural world in a useful and responsible way.
Born of a bold vision to bridge the disciplines of chemistry, engineering, physics, geology, biology, agriculture and medicine, and to engineer life processes into artificial systems, Ingenuity Lab is transforming the way we envision future possibilities in climate change research. “The depth and breadth of the research at Ingenuity Lab is really quite remarkable”, said Indira Samarasekera, former president of the University of Alberta. “This leading-edge learning environment has helped unite academic communities and provided concrete opportunities for interdisciplinary progress both within and outside our university.”
Greenhouse gas reduction is but one area where Ingenuity Lab is shining a light into the future possibilities of nanobiotechnology inspired engineering.
Fossil fuels originated from carbon collected from the atmosphere by plants millions of years ago. When we burn fossil fuels in our cars or power plants, we release the carbon that was collected back into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. CO2 is a ‘greenhouse gas’ and is implicated as a man-made cause of global climate change.
All of the carbon sources we use for plastics, fuel, consumer products and petrochemicals come from plants. One of the strategies that has been promoted for dealing with the excess emissions of CO2 from our industrial society has been to plant trees to collect the carbon from the atmosphere. Instead, imagine if you could capture carbon in an artificial system using just light to make useful chemicals and products that traditionally depend on fossil fuel. This is the goal of the Ingenuity Lab’s Carbon Transformation programme.
Ingenuity Lab is adapting a complex, life-sustaining process that routinely takes place at the nanoscale within the cells of plants. Plants use sunlight and CO2 from the atmosphere to produce energy that is used by the plant to grow and sustain its life. In a laboratory, Ingenuity Lab uses light, water, electricity and industrial CO2 emissions to produce high-value carbon containing chemicals that can be sold and subsequently used to make any number of consumer products. This is a novel way to transform and re-use carbon from industrial waste streams into value for society while reducing both our consumption of fossil fuels and reducing the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Carbon transformation represents both an important way to reduce humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels and a significant contribution to greenhouse gas reduction and mitigation of climate change. It offers an ability to begin to close the loop on our use of carbon resources through recycling the carbon into new and valuable products.
Over the past quarter century, scientists have gained an intricate understanding of how natural processes are operationalised at the nanoscale. The key is to apply this understanding in large-scale engineered systems to improve our world. In this way, nanotechnology will prove a vital tool in the fight against climate change. Bringing together researchers from a wealth of different disciplines and asking them to each focus on specific molecular interactions found in living systems, Ingenuity Lab’s work in this area is of immeasurable importance to environmental science.
With funding support from Alberta’s Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC), Ingenuity Lab is developing a facility with the goal of demonstrating the economic viability of transforming CO2 emissions into high value products. The project uses artificial photosynthesis to manage industrially produced CO2 emissions through carbon capture and value creation. The demonstration project, at a total value of $1.3m, will support the Ingenuity Lab team to situate the cellular processes responsible for carbon fixation in living organisms into a scalable, engineered system to create value added chemicals.
Of interest, the CCEMC’s mandate is to establish or participate in funding for initiatives that reduce emissions of greenhouse gases or improve Alberta’s ability to adapt to climate change. The Government of Alberta administers the collection of all GHG compliance funding from GHG emitters that exceed the allowable emission limit and pools those funds in the Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund. The funds are sourced from industry and made available to the CCEMC through a grant from the Government of Alberta. The CCEMC manages its resources as a portfolio of projects with a wide spectrum of investments. It projects at all levels of the innovation chain but with the majority of its investments focussed on demonstration and implementation of key technologies.
Ultimately, through the optimisation of a scalable process that utilises greenhouse gas emissions, Ingenuity Lab will generate drop-in high-value chemicals in a process that is complementary to existing regional petrochemical infrastructures. More importantly, the engineered system can be readily adapted to virtually any industrial activity to recover and transform CO2 into valuable chemicals and reduce the environmental impact of polluting activities.
The flexibility of this technology is the advantage over traditional carbon sequestering technologies. It potentially allows for any facility responsible for the production of carbon dioxide to scale and incorporate this technology directly into their operations, effectively eliminating their own carbon dioxide emissions.
Ingenuity Lab has set incredibly high expectations for itself, and, while there is much to be done significant progress has been made and the future is very bright indeed.
Research at Alberta-based Ingenuity Lab is driven by the need to resolve the most pressing issues that face the human race through innovative technological solutions. Its successful developments are made possible by building on the latest techniques in medicine, together with the implementation of the most groundbreaking technology in order to cure, prevent and treat a multitude of human diseases.
Combining modern medicine and nanotechnology is at the forefront of Ingenuity Lab’s work. By blurring the lines between science, medicine and engineering together with the use of nanotechnology, Ingenuity Lab is working hard to create better diagnostic and treatment options, pushing medicine into a new era – making it more effective, more accessible and smarter.
The art of medicine is imprecise. Many techniques used by medical practitioners are imperfect. Some methods of treatment are common and easy to implement in the western world, but hard to implement and even harder to access in less developed countries, either due to cost or lack of infrastructure. One medical challenge that affects an astonishing portion of the world’s population is blindness. Some causes of blindness may be remedied by new approaches Ingenuity Lab is developing.
People suffering from cataract disease demonstrate a noticeable cloudiness of the lens, which can impair vision and lead to blindness if left untreated. According to a study carried out by the World Health Organisation, cataract disease is the cause of 51 percent of blindness throughout the world, affecting roughly 20 million people. Traditional methods for treating cataracts are carried out through surgical procedures: namely, through the removal of the opaque lens and the implanting of an artificial alternative.
Although the rate of success is high, surgery and the medical care needed post surgery are considerably more difficult to access in developing countries, while the cost of the procedure in no way reflects a patient’s capacity to pay. This obstacle, which millions of cataracts sufferers continue to face, is part of a wider problem in terms of a persistent lack of access to basic surgery for a large portion of the global population. According to a report by the Lancet Commission on Global Surgery, published in April this year, “five billion people do not have access to safe, affordable surgical and anaesthesia care when needed. Access is worst in low-income and lower-middle-income countries, where nine of 10 people cannot access basic surgical care”.
Similar challenges also exist for a related disorder, pseudoexfoliation syndrome (PEX), which is prevalent in women over the age of 70. PEX is the build up of microscopic protein fibres, which are similar to the protein structures of the crystalline accumulation that form the cloudy cataracts lens. Patients suffering from PEX experience blocked drainage of eye fluid, which leads to an increase in intraocular pressure. This in turn causes glaucoma, which can result in vision loss.
Despite the effectiveness of traditional methods, they can only cure a portion of those affected. A new, non-surgical approach is needed – one that can be administered with far greater ease and at a fraction of the cost.
With this goal in mind, the team at Ingenuity Lab has taken on the task of creating a technological solution with the potential to restore sight to millions of people around the world. This is a vital area of medicine that demands attention. As the global population becomes older, many age-related ailments will become more common.
Using sophisticated peptide engineering and nanotechnology techniques, Ingenuity Lab is developing a treatment approach that is designed to break down the proteins that cause vision loss. Through the delivery of nanoparticles in a non-surgical process, it is hoped the accumulated fibres can be disrupted, inhibited and even destroyed. This highly targeted treatment approach uses specially engineered peptides that attack and destabilise the proteins associated with PEX and cataracts, with a low cost method that does not require significant medical infrastructure. Ingenuity Lab has made big steps towards making this treatment a reality. Researchers are now collecting human lens tissue samples in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the approach. A selection of various targeting peptides are being tested to assess which ones can best target and chemically disrupt the protein fibres that cause vision loss.
These exciting advancements have been made possible by tapping into the potential of nanotechnology, bringing the cure for vision loss in 21 million people within sight.
Using the construction of micrometre and nanoscopic structures – otherwise known as microfabrication and nanofabrication respectively – Ingenuity Lab is improving devices that can interface and exchange information with the brain. Electrocorticography arrays (ECoG) are engineered networks of electrodes that are placed directly on the surface of the brain to record electrical activity. Traditionally, ECoG has been used to treat epilepsy, but there is now a growing interest in the world of medical research in using it as part of a mechanism to connect the brain to external devices. Through the advancement of ECoG, those living with paralysis or missing limbs can operate prosthetics or a computer through their thoughts – signposting a very exciting era in medical technology. And at the heart of these new possibilities in medicine is the work of Ingenuity Lab.
A challenge in the use of ECoG is the need to record and process sufficiently high-resolution data for effective interfacing. To solve this challenge, Ingenuity Lab is working closely with NeuraLynx, a world-leading provider of electrophysiology data recording systems and solutions for neuroscience research. Together, Ingenuity Lab and NeuraLynx are working to develop an ECoG array that can deliver far more sensitive readings and superior data collection than is currently possible. New polymer coatings are also being developed to facilitate improved data transmission.
Ingenuity Lab is also working on the advancement of active neural devices that can replace the current passive sensors that are used in traditional ECoG probes. Researchers are focusing on neuronal probes that incorporate organic electrochemical transistors (OECT), which can directly interact with the brain in the same way signalling chemicals, such as dopamine, can. This naturalistic approach provides better signal to noise characteristics and higher spatial resolution, which is achieved through higher density and more sensitive sensors. A further benefit in using this technique instead of traditional ECoG devices is the chemical information that can also be transmitted. This new layer of data can contribute to a superior evaluation of the brain, thus leading to expanded diagnostic and therapeutic possibilities in the field of neuroscience.
Replacing broken parts
Nanotechnology – the precision assembly of matter to achieve a desired function – is best exemplified by living systems. Methods for repairing and replacing damaged or poorly functioning organs and tissues to restore normal function is the holy grail of modern medicine. To date, efforts to permanently restore lost function through tissue transplantation and regeneration have had limited success. Efforts to grow new body parts have, for the most part, been unable to either replicate the functional or structural diversity of the tissue being replaced, or poorly integrated with the host tissue. Now, using recent advances developed at Ingenuity Lab to precisely communicate with cells, a new generation of health solutions may be at hand. Ingenuity Lab, in collaboration with the Institute for Reconstructive Sciences in Medicine, and the Department of Surgery of the University of Alberta, is developing next generation tissue scaffolds with the goal of being able to grow and restore complete function to damaged tissue. Using what Ingenuity Lab calls ‘4D printing’, they can assemble implants tailored to meet the needs of a specific patient. These implants have a precise size, shape and chemical composition, uniquely designed to maintain cell viability and promote cell growth to replace damaged tissue. To put this in perspective, more than 644,000 new cases of head and neck cancer are diagnosed globally every year. They affect the structures of the face, mouth and throat, leaving patients with obvious facial defects. The loss of one’s facial structure and identity is devastating for many people and quality of life can be very badly impacted. In order to reconstruct these defects, surgeons will often take tissues, such as skin and bone, from other parts of the body to replace the missing structures. Often, additional surgical procedures are required to harvest these transplant tissues. The ability to make tailored implants is an important goal for both surgeons and their patients.
Each year, more than one million cases of knee meniscus injury are reported. Each meniscus acts as a shock absorber and helps to protect the articular cartilage that covers the ends of the femur and tibia; injury can mean the meniscus must be replaced. A lot of research is being done to determine the safety and effectiveness of collagen meniscus implants as an alternative, but, in general, the lack of tissue diversity means the restoration of complete and permanent function is not achieved.
Using 3D bioprinting techniques and regenerative medicine, Ingenuity Lab is creating bioactive ‘4D’ scaffold systems that can be custom built to meet the specific needs of each patient. In a clinical setting, this is done by taking a scan of the patient and using computer software to create a virtual replacement part. This computerised image would then be 3D printed using customised biomaterials that have been engineered to communicate with cells so the right type of cells exhibiting the needed properties are grown in the proper locations within the implant. The scaffold/implant can be seeded with the patient’s own stem cells in a pre-surgical lab setting. These implants are biocompatible and biodegradable. This means that, once implanted, and as the cells grow and differentiate into the proper cell types, the implant dissolves away, leaving normal, functional tissue.
Improving vaccine access
Immunisation is one of the most significant medical achievements in history. Vaccinations have eradicated smallpox and drastically reduced the global incidence of other deadly diseases, such as polio, tetanus, the measles and meningitis. This highly successful and cost-effective preventative measure is often referred to as one of humanity’s greatest triumphs. Yet there are still millions of people around the world who suffer from preventable diseases. For example, while the number of polio cases has fallen by 99 percent since 1988, in 2014, three countries still had an endemic of the incurable disease: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. The nature of the disease, being highly contagious, means the small number of current infections could rapidly increase. The world remains at risk until such time as the disease is completely eradicated.
One of Ingenuity Lab’s most important missions is to tackle the challenge of delivering vaccines to isolated and poverty-stricken regions of the world. Ingenuity Lab’s Oral Vaccine programme, initially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is making leaps in enhancing the triumph that is immunisation through the development of an efficient vaccine that is delivered orally.
To achieve this feat, Ingenuity Lab has been developing a vaccine that responds to its environment, thereby controlling where it is released within a living system. This is made possible through the use of pH sensitive polymeric materials that respond to the local pH balance of its surroundings. Once the oral vaccine has been ingested, it is only released in the pH neutral environment of the large intestine where it can be effective, rather than in the acidic conditions of the stomach where it would be destroyed.
This exciting innovation can meet the performance characteristics of vaccinations administered intramuscularly with a host of added benefits. An oral vaccination can be stored and transported without the need for refrigeration (unlike traditional products), meaning it can be delivered to remote areas without electricity and at a far lower cost – the implications for the developing world are huge. Furthermore, by using an oral delivery system for immunisation, the threat of contamination through needles is eliminated, as is the issue of biohazardous waste. This new method is easier and safer to deliver and administer, and associated problems of waste and disposal are overcome.
This vaccine system will be optimised over the next year, while potential applications will be tested in the lab and in animal studies using the influenza vaccine in mice. The long-term stability of oral vaccines will also be tested in order to assess the length of time for which they can be stored.
Preliminary data will also be collected for the application of the oral vaccine to livestock through animal feed; if successful, this would help prevent fatal diseases that can infect our food supply and be passed onto humans. Considering what has been achieved so far, and what is due over the next year, the reality of an oral vaccine that can reach every human in every country in the world is near.
There are many ways modern medicine successfully treats disease and turns disabilities into abilities, but current methods are often expensive or ineffective, or both. There are many diseases and conditions for which medical intervention is currently not possible. Human suffering continues to be a reality for many. Innovative solutions are needed.
Fortunately, the possibility of solving key medical challenges does exist. Technology is developing at a rapid rate and putting the right people together in the right ways and places to turn these dreams into reality can accelerate it.
Knocking down the barriers of traditional methods and mind-sets, together with tapping into the potential of nanotechnology and multidisciplinary research in a collaborative effort among the world’s leading scientists, can achieve these goals.
Not only is it possible, it is very much within reach. Ingenuity Lab is poised to be a game-changer.
Oil is important to Canada’s economy. In fact, Canada has the third-largest petroleum reserves in the world, after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Of the estimated 173 billion barrels of oil reserves in Canada (see map), 167 billion are located in the Alberta oil sands. The use of fresh water in the extraction of oil from the oil sands in Alberta and from reserves around the world is a significant environmental concern.
The world’s population is highly dependent on both water and energy. At the most fundamental level, water is necessary to support life; all living organisms depend on it. Water is needed for drinking, cooking, agricultural production and virtually all industrial activities that mankind undertakes. Between now and 2050, the worlds’ water supply will have to support agricultural systems that will feed and create livelihoods for an additional 2.7 billion people. Rapidly growing demand for meat and milk in urban areas of developing countries will place substantial new demands on agricultural water resources, especially for feed production. There is real concern that almost half the world’s population could face a water crisis as soon as 2025.
While water does not disappear from the global ecosystem, it is being redistributed and, at many points, contaminated with industrial and agricultural pollutants or mixed with seawater. The issue is to ensure the timely access to water of sufficient purity for use in industrial processes, agricultural processes and, last but not least, for human consumption.
In the oil and gas and mining industries, water is used to facilitate the extraction of both oil and gas and minerals from ground reserves. In nearly all of the endeavours that use water, the runoff is contaminated, to one degree or another, with a host of contaminants. Some contaminants are toxic and some are valuable and worth recovering. The impact of waste streams from these activities on groundwater, rivers and streams and the flora and fauna that depend on them can be devastating.
An Environment Canada study published in 2014 showed evidence that harmful materials from oil sands tailings ponds have contaminated the Athabasca River. Beyond the harm to the waterways, there is also concern that the ponds themselves and the contaminants contained within them pose an ongoing risk to fish, birds and other wildlife in the area.
This brings us again to nanotechnology. Ultimately, this is all about separations technologies. The problem is that separations are extraordinarily energy intensive, rendering them economically unviable for many situations. At present, their widespread use would result in rising water, food and energy costs. Increased funding for research to address water issues is being mobilised around the world. Focus is directed on desalination of seawater and remediation and reuse of industrial wastewater to meet global agricultural, industrial, and domestic water demands. Substantial progress is being made in the realm of energy efficient separations technologies. The advent of membrane based desalination techniques more than half a century ago provided the foundation for current water purification technologies. But practical problems in the implementation of membrane technologies remain. There is a need for better and stronger membranes with reduced energy requirements and lower operating costs. The cost implications have been a significant barrier to researchers and consumers alike. But that is about to change.
Ingenuity Lab is currently focused on using smarter technologies that can efficiently and economically separate water from everything else. Three different approaches are being developed: (1) highly specific water purification membrane using a biological cellular membrane protein (aquaporin) that allows only water to cross a membrane; (2) large scale industrial membranes comprised of a unique combination of materials that can be used to clean up large spills in water; and (3) specific material recovery methods to extract high value materials from industrial waste streams.
Aquaporins, in the words of the Nobel Prize-winning physician and molecular biologist Peter Agre, are “the plumbing system for cells”. In more scientific terms, they are proteins that sit in the walls of cells and allow water molecules to move in and out, while simultaneously preventing other small molecules (ions and solutes) from moving with the water. Ingenuity Lab seeks to develop commercial, synthetic, ultra-efficient, scalable water purification membranes that exploit the transport efficiency of aquaporin. In fact, the Ingenuity Lab team has engineered a way to stabilise and incorporate integral membrane proteins into engineered membranes.
In yet another approach, Ingenuity Lab is working on developing robust separations films that can exhibit hydrophilic (water-loving, binds to water or dissolves in water) or super-hydrophobic (water-hating, repels water) properties. An exciting feature that can be built into these films is ‘switchability’ – that means a material can be used to absorb contaminant-laden material and then ‘switched’ to release it. This switchability can be controlled with either electricity or light making it amenable for incorporation into automated processes. This project is focused on stable and inexpensive separations that can be used in large-scale environmental clean-up operations or to remove dissolved organic contaminants from industrial operations.
Lastly, Ingenuity Lab’s biomining programme is developing nanoparticle binding tools to increase specific metal and mineral recovery yields, lower production costs, and reduce tailings inventory in industrial mining operations.
The revolutionary technology requires the synthesis of hybrid inorganic-peptides with highly specific affinity for specific contaminants or high value materials, including, among other things, ceramics, metal oxides, alloys and pure metals. The peptides are attached to nanoparticles that are designed so that they can be readily removed from complex mixtures. The nanoparticle-peptide complex is then used to bind and carry the specific contaminants or high-value materials that are subsequently removed using a separation device. Separations may be effected on the basis of size, weight or magnetic properties. Similar approaches using nanoparticle-peptide constructs have been used as a mechanism to target specific molecular structures including disease antigens, biomarkers and specific chemical elements in medicine. Their potential use for targeted medical therapies has made these constructs a prime target of biomedical research. Ingenuity Lab sees an incredible opportunity to adapt the approach to environmental engineering.
So far, Ingenuity Lab has developed a proof of concept, focusing on the development and use of magnetic nanoparticles functionalised with peptides that bind to gold. “We have also developed a peptide structure that binds to molybdenum disulfide. It will be used to demonstrate the process using Alberta relevant mining tailings”, explain Ingenuity Lab researchers. “Molybdenum disulfide has been selected on the basis that it is a valuable material that is found in the tailings of copper mines.”
Due to soaring global energy demands and growing costs of production, companies are constantly searching for new ways to make industrial activities more affordable. One of the greatest challenges is the efficient transmission of energy from its source of generation to the point of use. The ability to move electricity without wires offers the possibility of reducing the global impact of electricity generation, eliminating visual pollution from power transmission lines, and offers the promise of transforming today’s power grid into a functional sheet of energy. This provides the potential of powering electric cars without batteries as well as delivering power to remote regions with a far lower cost and environmental impact.
A platform technology was developed at the University of Alberta in 2012 under Dr Thomas Thundat's Canadian Excellence Research Chair funded program that enables the wireless transfer of power and communication. Through a collaborative joint venture, this technology has been integrated into Ingenuity Lab’s vision. The types of surfaces that can be utilised by this Wireless Surface Power technology include metal foils, furniture, clothing, human skin, vehicles, soil, etc. The system exploits electrical standing waves, a phenomenon first discovered by Nikola Tesla more than 100 years ago. Essentially, electromagnetic energy can be transferred in a manner similar to the vibrations of a guitar string, allowing a single-point connection without requiring a return wire.
Wireless Surface Power has demonstrated energy transfer efficiencies exceeding 90 percent. By embedding thin, inexpensive foil strips into the floors or walls of homes, offices, and pavements, the entire area becomes an electrical outlet with devices that come to life when placed on or near the surface. This means you can move electrical devices anywhere within your home and not have to be in constant search of electrical outlets to power them. The technology can be scaled to higher power levels as required by large manufacturing centres, transforming the way factories are designed and enabling rapid economic and production reconfiguration. The technology can be extended to harness power production from alternative energy sources such as wind, low-head hydroelectric and solar power, making the adoption of these technologies more economically feasible.
Ultimately this wireless system will greatly expand our ability to exercise modern technology and provide a platform to distribute essential modern conveniences to regions that are currently unreachable due to prohibitive infrastructure costs. In many ways, this compares to the adoption of the cellular phone system making rapid communication available in regions where it was previously unattainable.
Canada’s place as one of the wealthiest nations on Earth has come largely as a result of the huge expanse of land it covers, and the plentiful natural resources within that land. However, the country has also proven to be one of the most innovative in the world, helping to develop some of the most important and widely used technologies. The fourth-most populated province in the country, Alberta, is one of Canada's economic powerhouses. The most developed of the three prairie Provinces, Alberta is the leading supplier of the country’s many natural resources, including its lucrative crude oil and oil sands operations.
Its economy has thrived due to these resources, but also as a result of a rich heritage of innovation, research and educational pioneering. When talking of Alberta’s role as an engine for scientific research, it is vital to discuss the university that acts as a hub for the rest of the region.
Alberta is widely known for its first-rate higher education facilities, with the University of Alberta providing a centre of innovation that also spawned nanotechnology pioneer Ingenuity Lab. Founded in 1908, the public, research-focused university is spread over four campuses across Alberta’s capital, Edmonton. More than 39,000 students from across Canada, as well as visiting students from over 150 countries, take part in roughly 400 programmes at the university.
The University of Alberta is a major contributor to the region’s economy, with estimates placing its contribution at around $12.3bn each year, which represents approximately five percent of Alberta’s GDP. The university is also a key contributor to the province’s jobs market: its 15,000 employees make it Alberta’s fourth-largest employer.
With the university sitting in a region dominated by the oil industry, research has of course been conducted into more efficient methods of extracting the valuable fuel.
Engineering professor Dr Karl Clark revolutionised the hot-water extraction method used to separate bitumen from oil sands during the 1920s, while geology professor Charlie Stelck’s work helped uncover huge deposits of oil in the surrounding area during the 1940s and 50s.
However, it is the area of nanotechnology for which the university has become particularly well known in recent years. In 2001, the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) was established as a joint initiative between the federal government (through the National Research Council of Canada) and the provincial government (through the University of Alberta). The NINT building, a state-of-the-art 200,000 sq m facility, opened in 2006. It rests in a prime location on the University of Alberta campus. At a cost of $52.2m, it is one of the most advanced nanotechnology research facilities in the world.
Ingenuity Lab Director Dr Carlo Montemagno passionately promotes the importance of education to Alberta’s economy, ensuring the next-generation workforce supports the transition of Alberta’s economy from one that is resource-based to one that is knowledge-based. Alberta’s strong economy is important for Canada; however, to maximise the value of the region’s incredible resources, it must transform to a knowledge-based economy by moving up the value chain, for example through the transformation of wood and plant fibre into high-value materials and products.
Dr Montemagno is convinced that the province can do so by building the knowledge and technology base required to make sophisticated, value-added products from the vast array of local resources.
Ingenuity Lab is essentially a capacity-building organisation. It works to educate people who will populate the workforce and build new technologies for the key economic sectors. This growth in capability, knowledge and people will transform Alberta’s economy from one focused on exporting raw materials to one that creates unique solutions to global challenges. Ingenuity Lab is focused on solving challenges that have both local and global impacts.
Forward planning is an essential component of any successful society, and so Alberta is taking seriously the problems of the world, such as global warming and energy efficiency, and is trying to understand how best to tackle them. “We need to stop looking at the signs and symptoms of societal challenges and work towards finding durable solutions to the underlying causes of those problems,” said Dr Montemagno. “By forcing ourselves to look into the future, and by encouraging our civil and economic leaders to cast an eye toward the areas where we do not have a history of action or a record of performance, we will enable a future of greater possibility. It can be a scary territory to explore, because it is fraught with the risk of failure, but it is a necessary step if we are to achieve our potential.”
The University of Alberta’s current President, David Turpin, stated: “Ingenuity Lab represents Alberta’s commitment to building a diverse and environmentally responsible future in the areas of resource development, health, agriculture and energy. Backed by large-scale provincial government investment in research and development, Ingenuity Lab aims to accelerate the discovery of scientific and technical solutions to challenges which are faced by industries and communities in Alberta and across the globe. The University of Alberta is at the centre of this investment, not only because of our long history of providing the research needed to develop Alberta’s incredible natural resource wealth, but also because we have the expertise and capacity to lead multidisciplinary teams of scientists and engineers seeking new ways of engaging with each other and pushing the frontier.”
The last two decades have seen rapid growth for Alberta’s economy; it has surpassed all other regions of the country. Alberta is the economic engine of Canada, and is one of the most robust economies in the world, thanks in large part to its extremely successful petroleum industry. Alberta’s per capita GDP was $84,390 in 2013, while the figure for Canada overall was $52,305, comparable to that of Switzerland, the US, Brunei and Norway.
The region’s oil and gas industry is the largest in the country, and it is home to some of the biggest petrochemical producers in North America. It is also home to major polyethylene and vinyl producers. Some of the biggest deposits of oil can be found in northern Alberta, in the Athabasca oil sands, estimated to contain 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen within 141,000sq km.
The unconventional oil deposits underneath this area reportedly add up to the same amount as is contained in all conventional oil deposits around the world. Such has been the enthusiasm for development in the area that more than $100bn worth of exploration projects have sprung up over the last decade.
According to Dr Montemagno, it is thanks to the many natural resources in the region that growth has been so strong. He wrote last year: “Alberta has led all provinces in average annual economic growth over the last 20 years. Our unmatched strengths in agriculture, forestry and petrochemicals have earned us an international reputation, but it is the energy sector that is our driving economic force. We are the energy hub in a nation that consistently ranks among the top 10 energy producers in the world. That’s huge.” He added that the proliferation of oil in the region rivals that of any other in the world: “A large part of our success can be found below the ground, in three major deposits in northeast Alberta. This area is roughly the size of England, and is the third-largest petroleum reserve in the world.”
The importance of scientific research to the economy of Alberta is considerable. With such a strong petroleum industry, as well as agriculture and technology, the research being undertaken at institutions such as the University of Alberta and Ingenuity Lab is crucial to helping support these industries. While the oil industry may not be universally popular, its contribution to economic prosperity in Canada is considerable. Alberta’s signature oil sands produce 1.9 million barrels of oil per day, and the province continues to reap the rewards of this abundant resource due to long-term technology investments in oil production made over decades.
From oil to innovation
Although the last year has seen a sharp fall in the price of oil – news that might have caused concern among Albertans reliant on the industry – there is also a sense that it could present the region with a huge opportunity. This year, with record low prices, many startups have emerged that are looking to innovate in different fields.
This obviously includes the area of nanotechnology, as well as areas in which new techniques can help give a boost to the oil and gas industry.
As a result, capital once earmarked for oil projects is starting to become available for entrepreneurs in other fields. The boom in oil and gas production in Alberta over the last decade has also led to a dramatic influx of investment and workers to the region. Last year, the region welcomed a record number of migrants, with total net migration passing 105,000. This pushed Alberta’s population to more than four million, and represented a growth rate that was four times the national average.
Dr Montemagno wrote at the time: “More and more people are choosing to live in Alberta because they recognise the province’s great potential. Either they were born and raised here and know the advantages first hand, or they were drawn to this unique area by the thriving economy, vast and varied landscape, world-class education facilities and strong cultural diversity.”
Pushing the boundaries
Forward planning has served Alberta well. It is because of the decision made to invest in technological innovation many years ago – at both the University of Alberta and within the oil and gas industry – that Alberta has such a thriving economy. The strategy of heavily backing organisations such as Ingenuity Lab in the field of nanotechnology research also means the region is once again looking to the future to ensure it is at the forefront of the global economy.
Dr Montemagno has written about how nanotechnology will transform the oil and gas industry, as well as many other areas. By combining this research with these industries, he feels a lasting legacy can be created for Alberta’s citizens of the future: “At Ingenuity Lab, we are looking ahead. We recognise the potential for innovative nanotechnology breakthroughs in the oil and gas industry, and are committed to working with partners to position our province for even more success. As Albertans, we have been fortunate, so now it’s time to secure the best future for those who will enjoy this province long after us. We must leave a legacy we can all be proud of.”
Technology that mimics human behaviour is transforming the manufacturing realm and Ingenuity Lab is at the forefront of this research. Sophisticated chemistry prompts inanimate objects and materials to respond intuitively to light, wind, temperature changes and a whole host of other triggers.Once a level of complexity only living beings possessed, this 4D technology is revolutionising the medical realm and many other industries.Need a knee replacement? This once complex, risky procedure can now incorporate such 4D technology, creating responsive body parts.As application opportunities abound, investors are also taking notice. The return on investment is anticipated to be 2.5 years.