Jackson Knott nabs the 2015 Award for Undergraduate Research in Inorganic Chemistry from the Canadian Society for Chemistry for his work developing rare earth-containing complexes.
Jackson Knott. Photo credit: University of Lethbridge
About 1½ hours due west of the University of Lethbridge sits the small Rocky Mountains town of Coleman in southern Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass. Five years ago, Jackson Knott applied to U of L, in part because that meant he could drive home on weekends to enjoy his mom Samantha’s home-cooked meals, made from garden vegetables grown in the backyard. It wasn’t just an appreciation for healthy, hearty eating that Samantha fostered in her son; he also inherited her respect for the earth and the need to act as its steward. “It’s something I’ve always had a passion for: looking after the environment, something my mom really drilled into me growing up,” says Knott.
This passion for the environment was channelled into an undergraduate degree in chemistry — specifically looking at developing rare earth-containing complexes that can potentially be used as catalysts in the development of biodegradable plastic. Knott’s work was so outstanding he won the 2015 Award for Undergraduate Research in Inorganic Chemistry from the Inorganic Division (ID) of the Canadian Society for Chemistry (CSC). The winner is selected from a list of chemistry undergrads from across the country. When Knott heard he had won “I was dumbstruck. It’s a huge honour. It made me really excited to start graduate work.” As part of the award, Knott presented highlights of his undergrad research at the CSC’s 99th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition this past June in Halifax.
During his undergrad, Knott gravitated to the exploration of synthetic inorganic chemistry and catalysis. His degree included a one-year co-op in 2014 with NOVA Chemicals in Calgary, which not only gave him an invaluable “industrial perspective on research” but allowed him to sink his teeth into polymer catalysis.
Back in the university lab, Knott researched complexes made from the rare earth metals scandium, yttrium and lutetium. Such complexes can often catalyze the reactions that turn lactic acid — a renewable chemical produced from sugar by bacteria — into polylactic acid (PLA), one of the most common types of biodegradeable polymers. These metal complexes and catalysts are tricky to work with: they are exceedingly sensitive to trace moisture and oxygen as well as temperature and sometimes light. And, because they incorporate rare earth metals, they are pricier than current industry standard, stannous octoate. Nevertheless, they show great potential to improve the rate and selectivity of PLA formation, which could enhance material properties, increase the efficiency of manufacturing processes and help lower the price of these bioplastics. Among other benefits, rare earth metals, which are highly electropositive, have significantly increased polymerization rates than catalysts based on other metals, says Knott.
Knott has already begun graduate work at U of L, studying under professor Paul Hayes. For his master’s thesis, he is exploring another type of rare earth complex, those containing a double-bonded nitrogen group known as a terminal imido. “They are really, really hard to make,” says
Knott. However, preliminary work indicates that they could be useful for capturing gaseous CO2 and turning it into a wide array of value-added molecules important to the pharmaceutical, agrochemical, materials and fine chemical industries. “This is an area that I really want to explore,” says Knott.
Knott has adroitly shouldered the mantle of environmental stewardship as he heads into his master’s degree. “There are perhaps some areas where oil and gas can’t be completely replaced but I hope we’re entering an era where we don’t rely on such products as strongly.”