Innovator Spotlight: Sagar Bathla

Meet Sagar Bathla, an engineering PhD student working on the future of fuel.


How do you describe your work to people who don’t work in your field?

I, along with team members, are looking at one of the most effective ways to turn biomass into biofuels. The intermediate product is called bio-oil, a liquid with a dark brown colour that resembles crude oil but has a high oxygen content and a lower heating value. My work is mainly concentrated on retaining the other components of the bio-oil composition while removing oxygen in the form of water by adding hydrogen. One of the most exciting aspects of this is that we are designing ways to use existing refineries that are currently being utilized for fossil fuels. As a result, the environmental impact of converting to biofuel will be lowered.

What’s one big problem you want to solve through your work?

One of the main challenges the world is facing is an increasing reliance on fossil fuels and the pollutants that arise from that. By developing a sustainable method for the generation of biofuels from biomass, we want to make a meaningful contribution to reduce emissions. Moreover, utilising the current infrastructure to refine and process fossil fuels will make biofuel a more environmentally and economically viable resource.

What does the word “innovation” mean to you?

Innovation to me means the constant re-evaluation of how we do things. Searching for a more efficient way of doing things that can lead to less environmental impact and betterment for future generations.

What’s been your biggest a-ha moment — in life or work — so far? 

I’m not sure I would quantify this as an a-ha instance per se, but when I was nearing the end of my Masters program I started recognizing how fortunate I am. Everything just seemed to perfectly align to bring me to Canada and specifically to the University of Alberta. Every domino fell into the right pattern to draw me to this field and I felt like this is my true calling.

How do you or your team come up with your best ideas? (Do you have any rituals or habits that trigger your creative spark, for example? What do you do to create space for innovation?)

This kind of work is a challenge because it cannot be left at the workplace. We are constantly thinking about how to approach and tackle an issue. That’s why, for me personally, it’s important to find activities that fully pull me away from the topic so that I can create space for that “light bulb” moment. 

What’s your favourite thing about working at the U of A?

Besides the phenomenal research facilities, professors and opportunities, I really enjoy the people and connections that I have made. The university is definitely a hub of innovation, industry, experts and research.

Do you have a role model at the U of A? How have they influenced you?

I definitely can appreciate the mentorship that has been provided to me by my professor, Samir Mushrif. It has been invaluable throughout my education. 

What’s next for you? Do you have any new projects on the horizon? 

Graduation is on the horizon and after that I want to remain heavily involved in research. The research aspect of chemical engineering is what has really drawn me to this field. 

This article has been edited for clarity and brevity.

About Sagar

Sagar is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta. He has a master's degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, as well as an undergraduate degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Petroleum & Energy Studies. His research in the area of sustainable energy focuses on the catalytic upgrading process for converting biomass into biofuels. Apart from his research, he also takes on teaching assistant roles to help undergraduate students in their coursework. 

He is a contributing member of The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), where he serves as an event assistant. With his free time, he enjoys working out, playing chess and cricket.