When in an airplane, soaring at 30,000 feet and watching a video on your phone, most people avoid thinking about the many tiny pieces keeping the craft aloft or of the different molecules that are lighting up in their electronic display.
They just need to work.
Locally, the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Engineering has a number of researchers focused on improving the materials we use in our day-to-day lives. Their work falls under the Materials and Processes: Design and Development research theme, one of five unveiled by the faculty earlier this year.
Researchers strive to both improve existing materials and manufacturing processes and to develop new, more efficient ones.
This includes Dr. Benoit Lessard, a Canada Research Chair in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Ottawa.
His research focuses on the development of organic electronics, which are devices fabricated using carbon-based materials, such as conductive plastics. The resulting device are inherently thin and flexible and can lead to niche applications such as wearable sensors, flexible displays or power generating window curtains.
“There’s huge potential for this kind of technology, because organic electronics can be manufactured at a fraction of the price of conventional electronic devices,” says Lessard.
Organic electronic technologies have already started hitting the market in the form of organic LED based displays for your phone, lighting for your desk and organic photovoltaics which can be rolled up and taken traveling.
As the field evolves, Lessard predicts that organic electronics will continue to become part of our daily life, from wearable diagnostics to smart packaging and interactive advertising.
“I imagine in a not so far future, we will all be wearing sensor laden clothing or electronics which can tell us when to go to the hospital and can relay that information to health care professionals to help treat us,” says Lessard. “Organic electronics will also lead to inexpensive power generation and fast point of care diagnostics for disease, which is crucial in developing countries.”
In the Mechanical Engineering Department, researchers are also doing work to reduce the cost and up the efficiency of certain processes.
Part of Dr. Bertrand Jodoin’s research, for example, focuses on additive manufacturing, which flips the traditional process on its head.
Traditionally, manufacturing starts with a block of material that is then whittled down into a smaller piece, leading to a great deal of waste. In contrast, additive manufacturing starts with small grains of material that are then built up into an object.
Not only does this make for a virtually waste-free process, but it also allows for the creation of parts that wouldn’t be possible using the traditional method.
And though additive manufacturing is largely being used for the creation of airplane and automobile parts, Jodoin explains that it also has massive potential in the health-care industry. He gives the example of a patient requiring a hip replacement.
“Instead of going to the Wal-Mart of hip implants and selecting the ‘medium size’ for your patient, now you can take an X-ray of the real hip and reproduce the exact same size for that patient,” says Jodoin.
Though additive manufacturing has been “blooming” over the past five years, Jodoin says many production materials still need refining. For example, although the process has been largely perfected for items made of plastic, manufacturing metal objects still poses a challenge.
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uOttawa's Faculty of Engineering
Both Jodoin and Lessard are also highly engaged with their students. They each teach several classes and oversee their own teams of graduate students.
“Frankly, this is why I’m doing this – because I want to educate and train highly-skilled people,” says Jodoin.
Being located in Ottawa means students can work with companies to help address real-world challenges. Locally, Jodoin has had students at a number of companies including Equispheres, one of the world’s leading additive manufacturing firms.
Meanwhile, Lessard’s research lab is run almost wholly by grad students.