Polyols and soils projects win top Alberta science honours

Jonathan Curtis Jonathan Curtis' Lipid Chemistry Group won the 2015 ASTech Outstanding Achievement in Applied Technology and Innovation Award for its development of bio-based chemicals which are transformed into a range of organic plastics and synthetic materials.
ALES researchers have won Alberta’s highest science and technology honours for two of the faculty’s most prominent projects featuring green benefits.

The Lipid Chemistry Group and the Breton Plots Management Team each took home a 2015 Alberta Science and Technology Leadership Foundation (ASTech) Award early this month.

The Lipid Chemistry Group took the Outstanding Achievement in Applied Technology and Innovation Award for its development of bio-based chemicals, while the Breton Plots team received the Innovation in Agricultural Science Award for its research on both grey soils and climate change mitigation.

The Lipid Chemistry Group, led by Jonathan Curtis, is using lipids to make bio-based chemicals. These vegetable-oil based polyols are the building blocks for a range of plastics and synthetic materials, including greener polyurethanes used for paints and varnishes, and for insulating foam.

Additionally, Curtis and his team are looking for other crops besides canola to convert into bio-based materials, which could create new economic opportunities for local farmers.

“We’re also working with camelina, which several companies are interested in establishing as a bigger crop,” he said, referring to a flowering plant also known as false flax or wild flax.

Meanwhile, the Breton Plots, located about 100 km southwest of Edmonton, were established in 1929 and are the only continuous, long-term plots on Gray Luvisols in Canada. Gray Luvisols is a soil group that occurs under boreal or mixed forest vegetation.

When forests were cleared to convert the land to agriculture, a lot of the organic matter that accumulates in the top layer of this so-called “grey soil” was removed. At the Breton Plots, long-term experiments have discovered the best ways to promote growth in grey soil zones.

Among the problems solved at the Breton Plots are the correct combination of fertilizers and crop rotations, as well as which kinds of fertilizers work best.

The management team, under the direction of Myles Dyck, a soil scientist in the Department of Renewable Resources, is also looking at how long-term agricultural management is influencing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Regular nutrient cycling processes in soil and microbial activity in soil produce both carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, which are greenhouse gases,” said Dyck. “We’re looking at how different long-term rotations and fertilizer products influence the amount of greenhouse gases emitted and how we might limit that.”

ASTech is a not-for-profit organization founded through an industry initiative in 1989 to showcase and promote Alberta’s substantial achievements in science and technology. It recognizes innovation and excellence in multiple industries, including agriculture, health, education, energy and technology.