Researcher Highlights: Dr. Fran Kerton
November 02nd, 2021
Tell us about your career path and how it led you to doing applied green chemistry at Memorial.
My schooling in chemistry was fairly traditional, but my undergraduate degree was with a minor in environmental science. The environment was something I was always interested in, and climate change and increasing CO2 levels were something I was very was aware of and very worried about. Early on in my career, there was this growing concern and focus on the hole in the ozone layer and CFC’s being released from refrigerators and aerosol cans that are leading to this hole in the ozone layer.
I very was concerned about all of this and I wanted a career where I could potentially make a difference and do something to benefit the environment. So, I was good at chemistry at school and enjoyed chemistry so I did a chemistry degree with a minor in environmental sciences. But I got a bit distracted from environmental side of things, and began to focus on inorganic chemistry, which is what I studied during PhD while was in the UK at the University of Sussex. Then I moved to Canada to attended the University of British Columbia and continued working in the same area as my PhD. And after that I went back to the UK to the University of York where they have a Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence there, and this is when really got involved in the field of green chemistry.
What is green chemistry?
The purpose of green chemistry is to implement processes that make and use chemicals that are less hazardous to humankind and the environment. The analogy that a lot of people in our area make is that it’s a bit like holistic medicine in terms that if you do exercise and you eat well, you can prevent yourself from getting ill. That’s same idea with green chemistry, you can prevent harmful things from entering the environment and causing pollution, so we try to prevent pollution before it happens.
It’s a forward-thinking discipline, and it engages a lot of students and public interest often, because obviously everybody wants, or at least I hope everybody wants, to live on a planet where we value the environment and that we’re going to be safe living here.
What industry needs is your work addressing at Memorial?
Well there’s a whole ocean around us, and it plays a central role in (Atlantic Canadian) culture, so I was inspired to see whether I could do green chemistry related to the oceans. I’d previously done some work with biomass, using biological substance as a feedstock, and creating plastics and materials using biological materials.
I became involved with the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association (NAIA) and started a collaboration with them and engineers at Memorial University to try and do something with the waste that’s produced in the aquaculture and fisheries sectors. And we’ve had quite a lot of exciting results. So far, we’ve been able to make some plastics from fish oil waste and some interesting new materials from mussel shells.
And I’ve got a new project starting that involves the Ocean Frontier Institute’s (OFI) Ocean Graduate Excellence Network (OGEN) looking at fish bones, primarily salmon bones, as a source of something called calcium hydroxyapatite.
And one other area I’ve been working in a lot is researching ways to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) into something useful. This a grand challenge in chemistry and engineering. One of the reasons that we have CO2 accumulating in our atmosphere is that it’s a very stable molecule, it is the lowest kind of energy form of carbon, so trying to take that and turn it into something that we can use or even to trap it irreversibly is a big challenge.
And connecting these two areas, I’m also interested in biodegradable materials and plastics. I’ve been collaborating with biological chemists at Saint Mary’s University and they’ve been helping us identify microbes that can grow on some of these degradable plastics to try and understand that degradation process.
How do you commercialize these ideas?
Some of my students have looked into commercializing their ideas, but unfortunately, they didn’t get very far and I think some found it quite hard. They’re working in a short-term window and there’s not much money available when you’re first starting out to commercialize an idea. And in the ‘chemical arena’ you’re looking at up to five years before you can get to the stage where you’re ready to do a pilot project and scale things up. (Applied chemistry) moves a lot slower than most sectors because there’s a lot more regulations that must be followed and it requires significant investment in terms of things like equipment and infrastructure.
I think it’s really important that there’s organizations like Springboard Atlantic who can help make connections with people already in the entrepreneurial space or with smaller industries that might be interested in collaborating in these kinds of projects early on.
I’ve got a couple of MITACS projects on the go with different organizations: one is with 3F waste recovery, a Newfoundland based company looking at waste from our food, fisheries, and farming sectors. And I also just submitted a proposal with a company called Seven fathoms Skin Care, which is a company making seaweed-based cosmetics. And it’s through these connections with industry or other partner organizations, government, and externa research labs, that you learn which research need we should focus on rather than trying to do 10 things without any direction.
What big discoveries are you uncovering through applied green chemistry?
I was chatting with a lot of media about this back in May. And we have some unpublished results with our fish oil plastics and we saw that some microbes were growing on the surface and one of the reasons we were interested in using this waste fish oil to make plastics was we thought it would have a high potential to biodegrade.
And so far, we’ve shown in our preliminary results that there are bacteria present in fresh water and soils that could potentially degrade our material. So, now we’re at a stage where we want to try and optimize and adjust the different components that we use to make the plastic and also do more testing on its strength and properties.
Which one of your projects excites you the most in terms of its positive environmental impact?
While studying the degradation of materials with our fish oil plastics, we’ve seen a lot of potential for new technology in terms of recycling and repurposing plastics, and if we can if we can do that in an energy efficient way and we can keep the CO2 trapped in this circular system.
These sort of (discoveries) are things that give me promise for the future of our planet. Even in my lifetime, I’d never thought electric vehicles would be a thing, and we’re seeing more and more electric vehicles on the road today and more green energy in terms of electricity coming from solar and wind, so there’s a lot of hope for the future.
There’s lots of reasons to build businesses using cleantech principles, and I think Atlantic Canada is a great place to do it. There’s lots of talented students who graduate from Memorial who would love to stay here and work our growing high-tech sector. So hopefully some of them will start their own businesses or you know more businesses will come here and employ those students.