The NRC launches its Mississauga centre for research, development and commercialization of new materials.

Catalyst (noun): an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action

‘Catalyst for change’ is such a well-worn phrase that it has lost much of its descriptive power. But in the case of a new materials research centre in Mississauga, it is apt on so many levels that it’s hard to avoid.

Situated right next to partner company, Xerox Research Centre of Canada, the new National Research Council centre is designed to act as a catalyst to accelerate the development of, well … catalysts. For example, catalysts that hasten the development of clean energy, and catalysts that help create new materials for applications such as 3D printing. The centre opened its doors in January and will ultimately host a staff of roughly 60 and a rotating cast of about 40 guest researchers from across the country and around the world to brainstorm and experiment, says Andrew Johnston, the centre’s acting director of research and development.

“We’re situating ourselves to be at the centre of a bunch of different collaborations in advanced materials science,” says Johnston. “We’re not trying to do everything ourselves, but rather act as a spark – a catalyst.”

The centre, which will be 6,000 square metres when complete in late 2022, has already established partnerships with the University of Toronto as part of a green energy materials initiative and with the University of Waterloo’s 3D printing experts.

It will focus on a handful of core areas of research, including AI-driven accelerated materials discovery and process development, and production scale-up, demonstration and standardization of new materials. It will also investigate catalysts for carbon dioxide conversion and hydrogen production, and smart materials for 3D printing.

For example, NRC and Xerox have begun working on thin, flexible and compostable batteries with potential applications in, among other things, food packaging: Think meat wrappers that give visual or auditory spoilage alerts, or cereal boxes that sense your approach and extol their contents’ selling features.

“It has to be fully compostable packaging though,” says Johnston. “If we’re going to do it, we can’t add to the plastic problem.”

Out of thin air (and water)

Developing materials for clean energy is another significant focus, says Phil De Luna, who is leading the centre’s collaborative research program in this area.

“My mandate is to develop transformative technologies to help Canada achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050,” says De Luna. “My moonshot is to make renewable fuels and chemicals from air and water.”

In particular, his goal is to reduce climate change’s impact by capturing CO2 from the air and using it as a feedstock for everyday chemicals and goods.

Since such feedstocks almost always require hydrogen, De Luna also wants researchers to work on producing environmentally friendly hydrogen from electrolysis of water. And of course, hydrogen can also be used in CO2-emission-free fuel cells.

The problem, though, is that hydrogen is expensive to make and more than 90 per cent of the world’s supply comes from fossil fuels, through a process known as steam methane reforming. The process involves exposing a mixture of methane and water to very high temperatures to create hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

The centre’s suite of artificial intelligence-controlled robotic labs will be key to speeding up the production of catalysts for creating fossil-fuel free hydrogen and for capturing CO2. These are automated labs that can propose, design and test a wide range of catalysts.

“Think of it as a robotic chef that makes the best souffle,” says De Luna. One that not only comes up with the recipe, but cooks it, tastes it and uses that information to improve the souffle, adds Johnston.