Metals are designed to be strong. More than anything else, though, they also want to degrade, to oxidize, to corrode.
When that happens – whether writ large in rusty bridges or etched into tiny objects such as computer microchips or nanoparticles used to deliver medicine to cancer patients – loss of structural integrity can be catastrophic.
The cost of corrosion and metal failure is incalculable; the potential benefit from creating more robust structures, almost limitless.
Now a team of Western University chemists, through a national project led by Queen’s University, is working to bring that game-changer to life.
“We’ve basically reached a limit and we need new ways of developing resistance to the instability of metals,” said Western chemistry professor Paul Ragogna, who specializes in understanding and developing molecular structures that can bind to metals.
The newly announced $24-million New Frontiers Research Fund (NFRF) – Transformation federal grant will support the project to develop a revolutionary new approach to protecting metal surfaces at macro-, micro- and nano-scales.
It’s one of just seven NFRF grants, investments in high-risk-high-reward research, that take new approaches to spinal cord repair, the health of Indigenous Peoples, solving species extinction, organ transplantation, employment access for persons with disabilities and repurposing marine by-products to improve health and coastal community sustainability.
The teams’ collective approach relies on forming carbon-to-metal bonds that will have unprecedented strength and resistance to corrosion caused by oxidation, changes in pH levels or heat.
More than just a coating, the protection provides a molecular anchor that binds to metal atoms, Ragogna said. “It is a bit like rust-primer paint but this primer binds to the metal and not to metal oxide. And it can be scaled for use with every metal, from giant pipelines to nanocrystals used in pharmaceuticals.”
This research could become a watershed for key manufacturing industries such as automotive, shipping, aerospace and construction.
This unique technology could also open markets in green energy, microelectronics manufacturing and nanomedicine.
Pipelines and vehicles would have a longer, rust-resistant lifecycle.
Circuitry in microchips would be resistant to data-destroying heat.
Gold nanocrystals would remain stable when used to target cancer cells in revolutionary precision medical treatment.
Principal investigator Cathleen Crudden, a chemistry professor at Queen’s, said the work in developing molecular coatings has “momentous potential” to save billions of dollars in infrastructure and manufacturing costs.
“Worldwide, countries spend, on average, over three per cent of their GDP each year on corrosion maintenance,” said Crudden, who is also Canada Research Chair in Metal Organic Chemistry.
“Annually, Canada spends around $66 billion across sectors. With new strategies, like the innovative coatings we are developing, we could save governments, taxpayers and industries up to 25 per cent of this cost,” Crudden said.
The work could also position Canada at the forefront of the barrier coatings industry, which has a national economic impact of $31 billion per year and employs 211,000 people across the country.
The molecular science behind the project was first hypothesized in the 1970s, in work that won its researchers the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Those theoretical ideas, tested and retested, may have seemed esoteric at their genesis but were critical to launching the research Crudden, Ragogna and their respective teams are working on, and to the industrial applications that could follow.
“The foundational research that backstops this is super-important and we never would stand a chance of introducing game-changing technology without it,” Ragogna said.
The project involves chemists, physicists, nanoscientists and medical researchers from around the world, including 30 academic and industry partners in Canada, the U.S., U.K,. Japan and Finland.
More than 30 groups of researchers applied for funding through the federal New Frontiers in Research Fund – Transformation awards, which support research into challenging science problems. The seven successful applicants will receive a total of $144 million in funding across six years.
“Our government has taken action to establish the role of science and scientists, and over the past two years, all Canadians have seen the true impacts of science and research in our lives. Such is the value of Canadian institutions and researchers who think outside the box to tackle major challenges. These programs are a catalyst for generating new breakthroughs and discoveries that will improve people’s lives, nourish our innovation ecosystems and shape Canada’s prosperity for years to come,” said François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry.
The investment news was part of a mega-announcement for $550 million in support by three federal funding agencies to 5,500 Canadian researchers finding new solutions to persistent problems across a range of science, social science and innovation fields.
The announcement included 188 new or renewed Canada Research Chairs at 43 institutions, support for young and emerging researchers.