In the heart of Downtown Toronto lies a nanoengineering laboratory that is determined to have a positive environmental impact. Its research fields are focused on smart materials and membranes for clean technologies, which encompasses work related to the future of electric cars, batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, and environmental remediation. This innovative laboratory is led by Dr. Hadis Zarrin, an assistant professor who joined Ryerson University’s Department of Chemical Engineering in 2017. She recently sat down with Monica Kwong, who chairs CIC’s Toronto Section, to discuss the journey that brought her to this work.

Your primary interests are in smart materials for clean energy storage and conversion systems and environment. What made you interested in these fields? What should we expect in the future regarding the technologies in these fields?

To me, materials are the foundations of everything we see and use in our everyday life. Any existing or emerging technology becomes functional based on its constituting ingredients and materials. On the other hand, the increase of global concerns surrounding energy consumption, depletion of fossil fuels as the main source of power generation, climate change, and environmental quality have always urged me to contribute to these vital fields and come up with more sustainable and cleaner technologies for both energy consumption and generation.

Currently, the sustainable commercialization and adoption of clean energy devices are limited by three factors: cost, performance, and reliability. At the heart of these limitations lie the component materials as well as integration strategies conventionally used for device assembly. Thus, innovative development of materials, integration into unique structures, device fabrication, and performance validation are the required steps to address these issues and produce affordable, transformative energy and environment technologies.

I believe these fields and cleaner technologies are still emerging technologies, and there will continue to be extensive research over the next 20 years. To fulfill their newly emerging applications, such as powering electric vehicles (EVs), Hybrid EVs and portable electronics, advanced materials with superior integrated performance that enables high performance and environmentally benign, convenient, and flexible storage or conversion of energy are highly demanded in near future.

Can you tell us about your lab, and what are you currently working on?

My lab at Ryerson University is called Nanoengineering Laboratory of Energy and Environmental Technologies (NLEET). At NLEET, we’re focused on engineering different types of nanostructured materials to increase their electrochemical performance, lifetime, mechanical integrity, and thermal stability. These multifunctional materials are assembled in clean energy-storage and -conversion devices, such as hydrogen fuel cells, supercapacitors, and batteries, to boost and prolong their power and energy density when used in electric vehicles, wearable electronics, portables, and households.

Since these nanostructures demonstrate multiple functionalities, in addition to energy-related systems, we’re always exploring other applications for them, including water treatment and purification, coatings, textiles, and smart healthcare. At NLEET, students have access to different types of equipment and facilities to run the experiments and characterize the performance of developed materials.

You have work experience in industry and academia. Can you tell us about the work you did in each? How do you compare the different work environments? What made you choose to work in academia in the end?

After I received my bachelor’s degree, I joined a French-Iranian company as a product and process engineer, where I was in charge of processing-technology transfer for the production of different raw materials and veterinary vaccines to hormone and vaccine producers in Iran. The technologies involved in the manufacture of hormones and vaccines were sourced from the license holders in France and were adopted by the manufacturers in Iran.

After one-year work in industry, I was partially funded by my employer to continue my studies and get my MSc in Chemical Engineering, which further motivated me to start a PhD program after moving to Canada in 2009. In all my MSc, PhD, and then postdoc studies, I had great opportunities to work on industrial-driven projects and closely collaborate with many industrial leaders. For example, during my PhD and postdoc, I worked on projects in collaboration with Alcohol Countermeasure Systems (ACS) Inc. to nanoengineer the electrolyte membranes used in electrochemical breathalysers to increase their performance and durability.

Gaining both industrial and academic experiences taught me that pure engineering and scientific fundamentals have no meaning without having practical applications or addressing existing issues in different industries and real life. This shifting of mindset encouraged me to stay in academia in the end, so I can have the freedom on experimenting the new ideas and also partner with industry to transfer the generated knowledge and resolve their technical problems at the same time.

Did you always know you were going to pursue graduate school? What did you like about it? What should interested students know about graduate school?

Not really. During my bachelor studies, I was aiming to join industry after graduation to learn how to apply my engineering background to solve industrial problems. I applied for many jobs and eventually I got a position in a French-Iranian company as a product and process engineer. The nature of my work exposed me to lots of interactions with academic professors whom were collaborating with the company. To accomplish the final process design of a new product, I always had to reach out to them and use their technical expertise. This experience urged me to pursue graduate school and start my MSc studies and then my PhD in Canada.

What I mostly loved about my graduate studies was doing an interdisciplinary research dealing with material science, chemistry, chemical engineering, nanotechnology, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. Not being limited to one field for performing a research project helped me gain complementary skills from various fields. These skills favored me to have collaborative opportunities with many academic and industrial researchers from engineering and science fields.

My message to interested students in continuing their studies is that going to a graduate school is not just about gaining a higher educational degree. It’s all about learning of “how to learn”. Acquiring a variety of skills of doing research and exploring new ideas opens one’s mind to see things and solve problems from new perspectives.

You remind your students that it is important to master their foundations before they can invent and redesign. Throughout your teaching career, how have you engaged your students in your classes to do so?

To do so, first the students must be able to zoom in/out the issues so that while focusing on specific details, they can have a big picture of the whole subject. Recognizing these needs, as an educator, I constantly strive to adopt pragmatic approaches of effective teaching. I use a range of pedagogies designed to focus on student learning and to consider student learning styles, such as demonstrations, videos, bringing guest lecturers from industry, brainstorming, team projects, think-pair-share, and games.

I also assess the knowledge and different learning styles of my students every 2-3 sessions by giving and getting feedback from them. Then, I modify my teaching methods to maximize the learning efficiency and engagement for everyone in the class. As a result, I realized that bringing diversity in day to day teaching highly encouraged student-faculty contact and engagement, increased cooperation among students, and promoted active learning.

You have many achievements, including owning a patent. Can you tell us about it? How did you come across the invention?

This patent is about a novel method of nanoengineering a polymeric membrane to facilitate and speed up the transportation of ions in a fuel cell or energy-storage device and increase their power density. This invention occurred during my PhD studies when I was working on enhancing the interaction of some nanotubes or nanosheets with the polymeric membrane via forming pores into its structure. Surprisingly, I observed that the created pores are interconnected, generating a transport channel for not only the nanomaterials, but also the absorbed ions which further boosted their conductivity and mobility.

This achievement pushed me to check the real-time performance of this novel nanostructured membrane in an energy-storage or –conversion device, such as hydrogen fuel cells. The successful results led me and my former PhD supervisors to patent this invention, showing how promising the performance can become by changing both the morphology and chemical structure of a material simultaneously.

Do you have any advice for women who are thinking about studying engineering in university?

I always have the mindset that gender should never be a burden to what you enjoy to study or what career you’re going to pursue in future. Rather, the professional skills and high qualifications must be the required keys of employment.

Living in Canada, as a country ranked among the top countries in women’s equality in the workplace, creates a great opportunity for women to study and work in industries and occupations, such as engineering, which are still dominated by men. So, if you’re a woman who is passionate to not only understand the science, but also translate that understanding into reality by solving complex problems, you should definitely pursue engineering.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

10 years, in today’s fact-paced environment and technologies, is very hard to predict. Nevertheless, in 10 years, I see myself as “a tenured professor and researcher at Ryerson University who established an advanced world-class R&D centre and developed a collaborative research and training program in the field of innovative smart materials and nanostructures for clean energy and environmental systems”.

This centre will involve advanced facilities and equipment to run high-end research projects in this field and possess teams of highly expert and experienced investigators from Ryerson, other universities, and industries. International and national highly qualified personnel (HQP) will be trained and educated in NLEET supervised by academic and industrial experts.

The research projects and courses in this centre will expand each HQP’s future career potential and give them the unique valued-added skillset needed to be employed in large-volume Ontarian and Canadian material-dependant sectors, such as energy, electronics, medicine, water treatment, and sensors.