Changing the uses for natural resources

Various natural resource products

Whatever the motive was to refer to Canadians as “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” it is impossible to deny the foundational role played by natural resources in the Canadian economy. The seemingly endless national fabric weaving together fishery, forestry, prairie wheat, and oil forms a distilled Canadian identity both for us and the international community looking in. Nowadays, the natural resource sector accounts for about 17% of Canada’s gross domestic product and employs nearly two million people.

Current methods and applications for resource exploitation are polarizing topics. Add to this the impact of a rapidly changing global social, political and economic landscape and questions emerge about the future of Canada’s natural resources. Leading the charge to answer is Giovanni Fanchini from the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Western University. Cross-appointed with the Department of Chemistry, Fanchini is a Canada Research Chair in carbon-based nanomaterials and nano-optoelectronics. At the heart of these areas of research, interest is the idea of taking petroleum, one of Canada’s core natural resources and changing the way we use it. Specializing in creating new types of organic, carbon-based materials, Fanchini’s research group is finding scalable advanced manufacturing techniques to revitalize traditional petroleum exploitation.

“Why burn our resources when we can build things from them, even forms of renewable energy? Increasing Canada’s manufacturing output by revitalizing our natural resource economy with knowledge-driven content will ultimately make our resources last longer, making a lasting contribution to the economy.” – Giovanni Fanchini

Results

Fanchini’s group builds organic polymers from petroleum sources that have significant applications in water filtration and environmental remediation, data and information storage, and solar cells. Using advanced carbon materials for water filtration draws on existing resource pools like oil and graphite and creates high value-added products in the manufacturing industry. The carbon-based membranes have micro-pores, meaning they can filter even the smallest metal ions with greater success than traditional methods. This improves contaminant removal outcomes in mining and agriculture remediation. Fanchini’s group has also devised a way to substantially reduce the cost of solar cell production. Printing them from an oil-based carbon polymer produces solar cells that are as efficient as traditional silicon-based solar cells and more sustainable to manufacture. Collaborating with the Gilroy lab in the Department of Chemistry, the Fanchini group is also using organic polymers to make ultralight data storage devices without using harmful solvents. Using Canada’s stocks of graphite, coal, oil, and even leftover agricultural feedstock to manufacture advanced, high value-added products, feeds our innovation economy, greatly slows the depletion of these finite resources and importantly, maintains jobs in regions of extraction.