Prof David Sinton has been awarded a 2015 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Photo: NSERC

Professor David Sinton has been awarded a 2015 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Photo: NSERC

Professor David Sinton of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering has been awarded a 2015 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). The award will support Sinton’s research into optimizing the growth of algae and cyanobacteria.

Dr. Sinton and his team are addressing the exact conditions – light intensity, light spectrum, nutrient and CO2 levels, temperature and more – that algae and cyanobacteria need to grow at their optimal rate and accumulate the highest levels of fat and oil. Their research will employ their expertise in microfluidics and optofluidics, two fields that look at how fluids and light can be conducted through very small channels or optical conductors.

The researchers recently designed a “lab on a chip” that contains hundreds of individual chambers in which the microorganisms can grow. Each chamber sits on top of a single pixel from an LCD screen, allowing the researchers to control the light conditions with precision. The tiny chamber acts as a self-contained greenhouse where the organisms can be grown on blue light, red light, bright light, pulsing light and a host of other possible conditions.

The next stage is to expand the device and allow researchers to vary CO2, O2, and nutrient levels across all chambers. The platform could be expanded to thousands of chambers, allowing for simultaneous testing of many combinations of factors to find the best conditions for fast growth, oil accumulation or any targeted outcome for a given species of algae or cyanobacteria.

The results will help researchers design large-scale facilities for microbial energy production. “Professor Sinton’s innovative work offers a new approach to key challenges in energy and sustainability,” said Cristina Amon, Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. “On behalf of the Faculty, I warmly congratulate him on this award.”

Dr. Sinton is one of six researchers across Canada to receive an E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship. Named after pioneering Canadian chemist Edgar William Richard Steacie, the awards provide up to $250,000 over two years to enhance the career development of outstanding and highly promising scientists and engineers.