Understanding the smallest mysteries will help solve our biggest challenges

Engineering professor's molecular scale research could unlock challenges in everything from the oil sands to bio-medicine

Richard Cairney - 06 May 2019

(Edmonton) In order to understand very large systems like oil sands production or finding ways to treat contaminated water, it's important to understand what happens at a very small level. Knowing how chemical reactions and molecular forces affect the behaviour of different substances is essential to controlling them.

This challenge is at the heart of the research conducted by chemical engineering professor Hongbo Zeng. The Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Intermolecular Forces and Interfacial Science, studies the way everything interacts with everything else.

For example, we all know water and oil don't mix. Zeng's research team works to understand precisely how oil and water molecules attract or repel each other-and they use that knowledge to make molecules behave in certain ways.

In recognition of his achievements, has won the NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship in recognition of his fundamental research.

Zeng's research into interfacial phenomena focuses on energy and environment-related activities such as oil sands processing and remediation of tailings ponds, as well as the development of functional soft materials including polymers and biopolymers with bioengineering applications like self-healable hydrogels and bio-adhesives for new medical treatments.

"The performance of every chemical or physical process is essentially determined by how molecules interact with each other. We are studying the very basis of these systems. And when we understand these mechanics at the molecular level and nanoscale, we can see it in the context of engineering," he said.

This field of science can have enormous impacts. Imagine designing a polymer that attracts the fine clay particles in the tailings ponds created from the oil sands production. By attaching themselves to these particles, the new polymers could weigh them down to the bottom of the ponds, allowing the water to be effectively treated for reuse. Alternately, other new polymers could be used to help clean up oil spills.

In order to solve challenges like these, however, a deeper understanding of the very basic mechanisms of molecular forces and interactions is required. And Zeng is a leader in this field. One of his most recent research projects disproved a long-held concept scientists used to determine the degree to which a surface repels water.

The Steacie Award provides Zeng with $250,000 over two years to focus on advancing basic science in his field-to discover the as-yet undiscovered.

"If we are successful we will have two outcomes: one is that we will generate new knowledge-this is not an easy task, it's quite challenging-and second, because we're taking the approach of applying improved fundamental mechanisms, that new knowledge can guide us to develop new materials," he said.

"This is very helpful to my research career, my research lab, our students and postdocs, and importantly, it will promote the development of new areas of research and that will help in the long term to attract more research funding and opportunities. It isn't just a two-year project-it's beneficial over the long term."

Zeng earned his engineering undergraduate and master's degrees at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and completed his PhD at University of California-Santa Barbara. He moved to Canada and joined the University of Alberta in 2009; he says that he was very impressed by the academic culture and research opportunities in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering.

"My colleagues, CME department and the faculty helped me significantly in establishing my lab and career quickly." He said. "I appreciate the much effort that my students and postdocs made in the research projects, as well as the great support from NSERC and many industrial partners. This is one of the best universities in the world in the field I work in."