Simon Fraser University, a scattered collection of glass and concrete buildings crowning Burnaby Mountain in British Columbia, seems an odd place to encounter an ancient Greek legend. But Prometheus — doomed to eternal torment by Zeus for stealing fire from the gods to benefit humanity — has been reborn in the verdant setting as a symbol for an ambitious new collaboration between industry and academia. With the lofty goal of turning the province into a global leader in materials science and engineering, the Prometheus Project — a collaboration between SFU, British Columbia and Victoria universities and the B.C. Institute of Technology — may well prove as momentous as the discovery of fire. “We like to think that Prometheus only gave fire to man, but he actually gave more: the concepts of thought and art,” says Neil Branda, SFU chemistry professor and Canada Research Chair in Materials Science. “Prometheus imparted the appropriate skills to be able to translate knowledge into technology,” says Branda, who is leading the endeavour.
The Prometheus Project rests upon a solid foundation of materials science innovation that has been developed in numerous B.C. laboratories, including SFU’s 4D LABS, located on the Burnaby Mountain campus. A $41 million facility, 4D LABS has developed an international reputation for innovation, especially in nanotechnology, since opening in 2007. It has several components, including nanofabrication and nanoimaging facilities, as well the Laboratory for Advanced Spectroscopy and Imaging Research (LASIR), home to cutting-edge photonics research as well as advanced imaging with two-photon laser scanning confocal microscope and analysis of materials with nano and femtosecond lasers.
But Prometheus isn’t simply an extension of these existing research centres and institutes — it is “next generation,” says Michael Wolf, UBC chemistry professor. Wolf, along with UVic professor of chemistry Alexandre Brolo and Branda, recently sat down with ACCN to discuss the Prometheus Project’s vast scope and ambitions. Among its multi-pronged objectives, Prometheus was formed to tackle the one, enormous challenge facing all academic institutions — bridging the gap between university invention and industry in order to create real-world applications that stand a good chance of being commercialized. Prometheus, says Branda, is about partnering to “push university research into the marketplace. That’s really our goal: providing answers to problems that exist right now — finding solutions to problems.” Branda says that such a goal isn’t unique — trying to bridge the gap between invention and the marketplace has long challenged academia. “We are bringing together a critical mass of people who have a long history of working together and combine our know-how and material science and engineering to making working devices that can be tested. All of us are chemists, physicists or engineers with a history of working together and interested in responding to industry; all team members represent gateways to bigger networks of people.” Nurturing such collaborative networks, Branda adds, will “build a culture of credibility” for B.C. and Canadian innovation. Prometheus brings together about 100 researchers from the four post-secondary institutions as well as about 30 companies for long-term collaboration. “It was identifying this need that we think is missing, which is being able to get our new materials and our creativity and devices into a form that can have an impact in a commercial setting,” Branda says.
L-R – Michael Wolf, Neil Branda and Alexandre Brolo are part of a 100-strong research team that is collaborating with industry to commercialize innovative new materials. Photo credit: tallulah Photography
The project has ignited interest and support from government as well as researchers. Early in 2013, Ottawa’s Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) announced a $7.7 million grant to the team to fund 40 per cent of the $20 million initiative. The B.C. government is expected to match federal monies through its B.C. Knowledge Development Fund (BCKDF), which supports investment in infrastructure at universities, teaching hospitals and research agencies that demonstrate long-term economic and social benefits to the province. The other 20 per cent is being sourced from industries and participating universities, says Branda.
Much of the cash is earmarked for new equipment: the kind that is used to fabricate new materials as well as the kind that characterizes their properties. This means lots more microscopes, lasers and their associated spectroscopy equipment. It also means advanced evaporators, depositors and other nano-fabrication tools. One new piece of equipment, the nanospider, uses electrospinning to create high surface area meshes of nanoscale fibers on a variety of substrates for high performance flexible solar cells and sensory devices. “It’s like a loom for advanced materials,” says Branda. But even more exciting is the possibility of “functional fabrics,” which could exhibit all kinds of new properties, including the ability to capture sunlight and turn it into electricity. Thin, flexible solar panels already exist, and some prototype devices have even seen them integrated into ordinary household items such as a purse with a built-in solar panel to generate electricity for charging small devices like a cell phone. But functional fabrics could take this to the next level, capturing solar energy themselves, says Wolf. Such materials may not even look that exotic, and in fact might be indistinguishable from ordinary fabric, yet could be more efficient and hardier than anything currently on the market.
Functional fabrics would not only have a certain appeal in the world of fashion, they would also have a portability factor that could be useful in many other industries. One example is providing the energy to power batteries for communications devices, a boon for those (such as the military) working in isolated areas like the desert, says Branda. Or, solar energy capture fabrics could be used to create awnings for generating power to a building. For areas that are off the grid, says Branda, functional fabrics could provide clean and efficient energy while minimizing infrastructure needs.
Another sector where Prometheus hopes to bring 21st century innovation is the development of ever-more sophisticated diagnostic and treatment tools in medicine. One example is something that has already been invented by Brolo for use in places like his native Brazil where tropical diseases can take a drastic toll on vulnerable populations. Brolo, who is a physical chemist, developed a simple strip of plastic-coated gold nanoparticles for the detection of dengue fever. The value lies in its simplicity, portability and economy — the strips cost less than one dollar each, Brolo says, with the price going down in the future with mass production. A simple drop of saliva from a patient on the strip provides an immediate diagnosis, as there is a dengue specific signature, or biomarker, that causes the strip to change colour, says Brolo. (Early detection enhances survival rates of dengue victims.) Such processes are but an example of the potential of biosensors and the type of innovation: diagnostic, miniaturized and meant for field use, that will be developed further under the Prometheus Project, Brolo says.
Brolo also anticipates breakthroughs in personalized medicine in areas like oncology, including the diagnosis of different types of cancer through identifying biomarkers detected in a drop of blood. “What you do is tailor the biosensor to a particular disease by controlling the chemistry — that’s how the biosensor works,” Brolo says. Cancer treatment will become more sophisticated too, Brolo adds. Endoscopy devices will be devised that allow a highly sophisticated biochemical analysis of a tumour, allowing chemotherapy or radiation to be tailored in accordance to the degree of virulence. A third key area of innovation under the Prometheus Project is the development of spintronics or quantum devices that will improve encrypted communications to enable more secure financial transactions by making more powerful computers and computational tools — something that belongs more to the realm of physics than chemistry. “These are quantum phenomena,” says Brolo.
But besides all the new products and devices, Branda also expects significant job stimulus and economic growth from Prometheus due to the expansion of knowledge-based resources and the resulting spinoffs. The project will also draw top-quality researchers and scientists to the province, Branda says.
Prometheus Project laboratories will utilize state-of-the-art equipment to make new materials, including this nanospider, which uses electrospinning to create high surface area meshes of nanoscale fibers for high-performance flexible solar cells and sensory devices. Photo credit: Elmarco
Another key benefit of nurturing collaborative networks between academia and industry is that advances will be made “further and faster,” Brolo says. Having researchers in different laboratories working in concert on innovation greatly increases the probability that creative new applications will be found for things that have been created for wholly different purposes. The promise of “unanticipated applications” as a result of technology transfers is what gives the Prometheus Project its vast potential, says Wolf. “So many of us have technology and know-how that can be applied to things we don’t even know they can be applied to.”
Innovation takes time — partnered with or without business. As Wolf says, “even if you have a completely packaged product there is still a long time lag between its completion and when it is sold.” Branda adds that success for Prometheus will be measured not by what “can be found on the shelves” but by licensing agreements. Successful innovation, he adds, is having an industrial partner or venture capital spinoff or license that “has agreed to take innovation to the next step” and undertake the responsibility of getting it into the marketplace.
Prometheus isn’t limiting itself geographically to B.C. innovation. Canada’s relatively small population means Prometheus and other laboratories in other parts of the country that are working in similar research areas like nanotechnology will collaborate on projects, Branda says.
As a research and innovation project, Prometheus amalgamates the learning and creativity of an academic institution with the pragmatic, commercial focus of industry. Such close collaboration of institutions and the sharing of state-of-the-art equipment are expected to not only attract the brightest of young researchers but the investment of industry. Materials science can be an amorphous and broad field — the most valuable inventions often come out unintentionally, from pacemakers to microwave ovens and sticky notes. “The materials that you develop and build over the years can be applied to so many other things; you may see something come out that’s completely different based upon what we’ve learned,” says Branda. What is learned from making an integrated solar device may well be applicable to many other diagnostic devices. “That’s the key of materials science in general, that the material can be used in many different devices. So we are focusing on what we think is going to be best embraced by industry.”
Thus endures the gift of Prometheus — a continuum of knowledge, creativity and technology for the ultimate benefit of humanity.