Photo credit: Martin Lipman/NSERC

Put most simply, Dwight Seferos runs a laboratory that looks at materials that conduct electricity and store electricity; but of course, the reality is much more complicated than that. As holder of the Canada Research Chair in Polymer Nanotechnology at the University of Toronto (U of T), he examines familiar semiconductors like silicon as well as new materials that are not usually associated with practical electrical applications. More specifically, he is interested in novel polymers that could stand in for well established materials that need to be replaced for one reason or another.

By way of example, he points to cobalt, a heavy metal staple of energy storage that grows more expensive with increasing global demand, yet remains difficult to recover after use.

“Electronics recycling is messy and battery recycling is nowhere near where it needs to be,” says Seferos. “The hope is to design a replacement to be used in these processes, something that would make it possible to recycle these materials for less of an environmental impact.”

In addition to these life cycle considerations, polymer-based components could open up new possibilities by making finished products much lighter.

“If you think about flight, it’s all about weight at take-off,” explains Seferos. “If you look at our materials, they’re potentially useful for electric vehicles, but they’re more useful for electric aviation, because they’re lightweight. That’s really the key, as opposed to land-based vehicles, which are more concerned with density and not volume so much.”

The key to much of this work has been manipulation of macromolecular architecture in order to shape the properties of the resulting polymers. Seferos and his colleagues have been using Catalyst Transfer Polymerization (CTP) to create monomers that provide the basis for polymers with useful electrical properties. These ongoing efforts have earned him the 2020 Macromolecular Science and Engineering Award (sponsored by Nova Chemicals), which highlights outstanding contributions in this field.

As part of the award, Seferos will be delivering a presentation at this fall’s Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference, which will describe the role of CTP in the creation of a broad range of polymers, from chains perfectly assembled from molecules with the same relative molecular mass to block copolymers with extraordinary optical or electronic qualities. These discovery activities have also become the basis of a collaboration with the National Research Council’s new Advanced Materials Research Facility, which was introduced as part of a CIC Talks presentation on July 22 that dealt with the growing role of artificial intelligence in this area.

For Seferos, these combined efforts point the way to innovations such as integrating energy storage into textiles, which will be essential for “wearable” electronics. More immediately, however, he is eager to see AI accelerate the pace in the laboratory, which will make it possible to achieve such tantalizing applications all the sooner.

“We’ve got three or four initiatives at U of T on energy, materials, and machine learning,” he concludes. “The first thing we want to do is automate a lot of the processes that the researchers use. There’s safety reasons for that but it also just speeds things up. If you can close the loop and feed it back into the system, it could be really exciting.”