While oxygen may give us life, it constantly eats away at modern living.

Picture your commute to work or school, to a store or the gym. You may drive a car or take public transit. Your route may take you over a river by bridge or by train. Maybe your phone rings along the way; it’s your friend asking for a pick-up from the airport later.

These activities, along with countless others in which we routinely engage, rely on the strength and resilience of metals, which play indispensable roles in sectors from automotive and engineering to health care and communications. The problem: when most metals meet oxygen – be it the oxygen in the air or in the molecules that comprise water – they grow unstable and break down.

With $24 million in newly announced support from Canada’s New Frontiers in Research Fund, Queen’s chemistry researcher Cathleen Crudden is poised to revolutionize industries worldwide with unique molecular coatings designed to significantly extend the lifespan of vital metals. These advances could not only improve our daily lives, but they could also save society billions in infrastructure and manufacturing costs.

Molecular science. Momentous effect.

 

Together with her multidisciplinary team of international researchers and industry collaborators, Dr. Crudden is developing a fundamentally new approach for protecting metal surfaces. Building on her prior discovery that a certain class of organic molecules can form bonds with a wide range of metals, the group is exploring and developing a carbon-on-metal coating that could slow or halt corrosion and degradation caused by oxygen, changes in pH, and heat.

"Worldwide, countries spend, on average, over three per cent of their GDP each year on corrosion maintenance. Annually, Canada spends around $66 billion across sectors," says Dr. Crudden, professor and Canada Research Chair in Metal Organic Chemistry. "With new strategies, like the innovative coatings we are developing, we could save governments, taxpayers, and industries up to 25 per cent of this cost. We are very excited about the potential this work holds, and grateful for this significant support from the New Frontiers in Research Fund: Transformation Stream."

These coatings could prevent metals in microchips from breaking down, leading to greater longevity for our computers, phones, and other devices. They could also guard against automobile rust, improve aerospace design, and even be used on a nanoscale, improving targeted chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and refining medical imaging.

The technology’s potential to improve cancer care is promising, as it could enable new advances to nanomedical precision cancer treatments that could impact the health and wellbeing of one-in-two Canadians who will develop the disease in their lifetimes.

High-risk. High-reward.

The New Frontiers in Research Fund: Transformation Stream grant awarded to Dr. Crudden and her team is one of only seven grants of up to $24 million announced by the federal government earlier this morning. Distributed to recipients over a six-year span, the funding is designed to support large-scale projects involving high-risk, high-reward, interdisciplinary research. This is the first time New Frontiers in Research Grants: Transformation Stream have been awarded.

"I am beyond proud of the Canadian institutions and researchers who think outside disciplines and borders to tackle major challenges," says The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. "These programs are a catalyst for amplifying new voices, insights and discoveries that will answer communities’ needs, elevate our innovation hub and shape Canada’s prosperity for years to come. Congratulations to all recipients!"

The development of new coatings could help position Canada at the forefront of the barrier coatings industry, which has a national economic impact of $31 billion per year, and currently employs 211,000 people across the country.

"Thanks to support from the New Frontiers in Research Fund, Dr. Crudden and her interdisciplinary team will be able to advance the application of their pioneering research, protecting vital metals across industries," says Patrick Deane, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Queen’s University. "This work reflects the importance of research being undertaken at Queen’s and the impact it can have on both human and economic aspects of our society."

Both Queen’s Office of Partnerships and Innovation and GreenCentre Canada – a Queen’s spinoff led by another Queen’s Chemist Philip Jessop – are on board to assist the project group with research translation and potential commercialization through regular assessments of the technology’s readiness and economic potential.

International collaboration, learning, and training.

[Dr. Cathleen Crudden with collaborators and students]
Dr. Cathleen Crudden (Chemistry) with her team of Queen's collaborators, lab members, and students. [Photo taken in accordance with COVID-19 protocols in effect at the time.]

Along with multidisciplinary research and industry collaborators across Canada, the US, and Europe, Dr. Crudden is working alongside several Queen’s University colleagues. Chantelle Capicciotti, Queen’s National Scholar and assistant professor of Chemistry and Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, joins Dr. Crudden as a co-principal investigator on the project, while Kevin Stamplecoskie, assistant professor in Chemistry, and Alastair McLean, professor in Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy, are co-applicants.

"I want to congratulate Dr. Crudden and her team on being awarded this new funding, and thank the Government of Canada for supporting high-risk, high-reward research with the potential for wide-ranging impacts," says Nancy Ross, Queen’s Vice-Principal (Research). "Not only could this project boost Canada’s position in the global high-tech sector, but it will also enhance cross-disciplinary collaborations, support early career professionals, strengthen equity, diversity, and inclusion opportunities, and expand student learning in myriad ways."

The project’s potential to boost professional and educational development for those involved is significant. Early career researchers like Drs. Capicciotti and Stamplecoskie, stand to gain invaluable leadership, learning, and collaborative experiences while performing vital roles in advancing the work.

Graduate and post-doctoral students will be involved as well; learning and working alongside, and supervised by, early career and seasoned researchers – building their skillsets and improving future employability. Dr. Crudden is preparing to hire approximately 14 students and post-doctoral fellows to assist with the project.

The New Frontiers in Research Funding results were announced as part of a bundled science announcement that included the latest round of Canada Research Chair appointment and renewals and graduate scholarships and fellowships. You can find Queen’s coverage of these funding achievements in this article.

Originally published in the Queen's Gazette

 

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