From commercial applications of graphene nanofilms to turning food waste into sustainable bioplastics, the expansion of Canada’s advanced manufacturing industry also means expanded opportunities for chemists. Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen), the industry-led organization behind Canada’s advanced manufacturing supercluster, is funding two such examples.

In August, Waterloo, Ontario-based Evercloak – which makes thin, uniform nano-coatings – embarked on a $4.5 million project with investment from NGen to scale up commercial applications of graphene nanofilms in HVAC systems. The company is teaming up with Barrie, Ontario’s Environmental Systems Corporation to use these membranes in cleanrooms, which have stringent requirements for temperature, humidity control, air quality and pressure.

The membranes solve a problem that has long plagued traditional air conditioners, which deal with the heat contained in water vapour by cooling the air until the vapour condenses. The problem is that this requires a lot of energy.

Evercloak’s membrane works differently. It’s highly selective, letting water molecules pass through while keeping out the other components of air. Because the membrane is so thin, drawing water vapour through the nanopores takes very little energy and keeps operating costs low.

The system then uses conventional vapour compression to cool the remaining air. But because that air is dry, this process also requires far less energy.

Experts have long recognized this potential of graphene membranes. But up till now, the membranes haven’t been a commercial success due to a lack of cost-effective and scalable approaches for manufacturing the nano-scale films quickly, continuously, and over large areas. Evercloak’s chemical engineers, who make up the bulk of its technical teams, have been key to solving this problem, says co-founder and CEO Evelyn Allen.

“Right now, a lot of graphene-oxide membranes are made at lab scale in vacuum filtration approaches,” says Allen. “The membranes are quite thick, so they require more materials, and their performance isn’t as good.”

Some researchers have experimented with graphene spray coatings to create a thinner membrane, but it doesn’t result in a uniform thinness over large areas. While Evercloak’s process is a trade secret, it creates uniformly thin membranes that can be used in larger applications, such as HVAC systems.

Like Evercloak, Scarborough, Ontario-based Genecis Bioindustries Inc. is turning to biotechnology to perfect a cost-effective and scalable system for an environmentally friendly technology. NGen is providing $6 million in collaborative funding to help the company develop a novel biotechnology platform that uses microbial cultures to convert food waste into sustainable bioplastics.

Genecis, in partnership with StormFisher, a developer and operator of organic waste and clean energy solutions, will use the funding to integrate its demonstration scale technology into an anaerobic digestion plant to convert organic waste into high-value PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates) bioplastics.

“We’re excited to explore how our process technology can integrate into anaerobic digestion plants. Our scale-up strategy is to partner with these biogas plants to produce PHAs at scale through a distributed network of production partners. The NGen funding takes us one step closer to realizing this,” says Luna Yu, Genecis’s founder and CEO.

The company’s proprietary mix of microbes breaks down food waste into organic fatty acids which are then fed to bacteria that manufacture PHA. Once the PHA is extracted from the bacteria, it’s refined into bioplastic products.

The joint venture’s first product line will explore applications in food packaging, agricultural plastics, medical plastics, and additive manufacturing filaments. The partners will set up their demonstration project at the StormFisher Resource Recovery Centre in Drumbo, Ontario, designed to recycle discarded packaged food and municipal green bin waste.

“There are a few companies that have commercialized PHA production, but they use sugar crops or oils as feedstocks,” says Yu. “We use food waste. So we are either paid to take it or it’s free. It’s a more cost-effective model.”