Collaboration can advance the greening of materials

Opinion: How global research collaboration and technology can shape the future of sustainable materials development

Office of Research

Dr. Sushanta Mitra is the executive director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology (WIN), Canada’s largest nanotechnology institute and a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering.

His research interests focus on how fluids move around in micro and nano-sized spaces with applications in energy, water and biological systems. Outside of teaching, research and administration, he is an entrepreneur leading several startups.

The Science and Technology in Society (STS) forum is an annual meeting that provides an opportunity to discuss how science and technology will impact the future health and sustainability of the planet. The objective is to provide a new mechanism for open discussions on an informal basis, and to build a human network that would, in time, resolve the new types of problems stemming from the application of science and technology.

This international gathering attracts thousands of global leaders in science and technology, policymaking, business and media from around the world. The themes are as diverse as the leaders that attend, for example, at the last gathering, there was a focus on artificial intelligence (AI), digital equity, trust in information, climate change, food and water security, biodiversity, preparing for the next pandemic and space exploration and development.

In October 2023, I attended the STS forum in Kyoto, Japan as a speaker during the Innovative Engineering panel on revolutionary materials and devices. I was joined by five other speakers including two Nobel laureates. This conference allowed for a meeting of the minds to discuss and debate how technology can shape the future of tomorrow.

Materials play a pivotal role

Researchers at WIN fall into four thematic areas: smart and functional materials, connected devices, next generation energy systems and therapeutics and theranostics. Across all four themes, materials play a critical role. From functionalizing materials, to creating an interface to interact with them, to greening materials and using nano materials in health a wellbeing, our focus is on the future and improving the quality of life for all.

In opening the Innovative Engineering: Revolutionary Materials and Devices session, Dr. Hideo Ohno, president of Tohoku University in Japan, and panel chair highlighted that revolutionary materials and devices would be fundamental to realizing the full potential of current advances in AI, noting that materials are everywhere and are fundamental to all aspects of our modern world. Meanwhile, we must be cognizant of important societal aspects for the future, such as resource conservation, environmental impact and biodiversity.

Our discussions about revolutionary materials at the STS forum is where I see the intersection points with Waterloo, through our work on global futures, especially health, technology and sustainability, and placing importance on international and multi-disciplinary collaborations.

Intersection with WIN and the global futures initiative

The presenters emphasized the importance of prioritizing sustainability from the outset when considering revolutionary materials. For example, creating devices using green chemistry is one consideration, but it must have the functionalities that would really help us to create those breakthroughs in terms of energy, and applications in terms of creating better health for tomorrow.

Another key takeaway from the forum was how we can accelerate discovery. One of the pathways is using AI to identify new combinations of materials based on prior knowledge of experiments that are conducted with different combinations. Rather than spending the next decade on discovering new sustainable materials, using machine learning will hasten the discovery rate.

Research at Waterloo creating sustainable materials and processes

On the topic of climate change and zero-carbon efforts, a key issue with sustainability is that non-biodegradable plastics are much cheaper than biodegradable plastics. To have sustainable manufacturing we need green chemistry, and to be able to mimic nature we need to be able to understand complex systems.

In my research on liquid-liquid encapsulation, we can produce a sustainable method for encapsulating pharmaceutical ingredients. This approach minimizes energy use and eliminates microplastics, reducing environmental impact.

Collaboration and internationalization shaping the future of tomorrow

During the forum, another key conversation was about collaboration. Alone an institution will not be able to accelerate material discovery. That is why partnerships across jurisdictions is essential. Some of the international partners with whom WIN is working in this effort are National Institute for Materials Science, Japan, Korea Institute of Materials Sciences, South Korea, and Central European University of Technology, Czechia. In addition, we are working closely with Waterloo.AI on this effort. In my own research, we partnered with Brainport Innovation Ecosystem in the Netherlands.

Despite the successes of materials science, we still have much to learn.