Written by Andrew Seale
To Alexandra Tavasoli, it’s obvious that chemical engineering is the silent giant behind everything we do.
“Whether we're able to buy toothpaste all the way to geopolitical decisions that might happen at the UN in terms of resource sharing – there's no other sector in my opinion that affects the minutiae of our every day lives more,” says the co-founder of Solistra, which uses solar power to turn greenhouse gas emissions into sustainable fuels for chemical processes.
Yet despite the role it plays in our everyday lives, despite its undeniable ubiquity, the chemical industry faces a lot of flack. And it’s a discord that has always bothered Tavasoli, a chemical engineer.
“These chemical plants have to exist – period – if everybody wants their lives to keep rolling along as they are,” she says. “The shampoos or cosmetics or foods available to them all come from these large manufacturing processes… and I think it's difficult in people's everyday lives to understand that necessity.”
But Tavasoli also considers herself an activist, one that champions a more sustainable future. “I have these two personalities, I feel like I'm always torn between.”
As part of her doctoral research at the University of Toronto’s solar fuels group, she developed light-activated nanomaterials, photocatalysts capable of driving the conversion of carbon dioxide into value-added liquid fuels. Seeing the potential for her nanomaterials, she teamed up with Thomas Wood, a founding member of U of T’s solar fuels group, to put her research to practical use.
“(We) wanted to make sure that Solistra (was) able to address the existing infrastructure of the chemical sector – to be able to retrofit and make it greener without having to scrap everything and start from scratch,” she says. It’s a new way of thinking, one that benefits from a city like Toronto which the Solistra co-founder says has a legacy of cleantech innovation and support – a tight-knit sub-ecosystem amidst the overall startup scene.
The concept got a boost this year when Tavasoli was selected as a finalist for MaRS Cleantech’s Women in Cleantech program. The 30-month program comes with an annual $115,000 stipend for two-and-a-half years, access to a federal lab, and the chance to win another $1 million in funding when the competition ends in 2021. The seed funding has helped her turn her idea into a company and build a larger scale demonstration unit.
Demonstration will be critical to accomplishing Solistra's goals. Tavasoli says that while the chemical industry is a giant, it’s not a dinosaur – it’s capable of evolving and it has. She points to the late industrial revolution when the industry moved away from coal tar as its main feedstock.
“The idea of changing the existing chemical infrastructure towards a different feedstock, towards a more sustainable (option), isn't such a novel idea, it's happened before,” she says. “It's just a matter of reminding people that that shift is within our capabilities.”
And it’s already on the chemical industry’s mind, especially with the push to reduce greenhouse gases over the next decade.
“A lot of organizations aren't really clear how to do that,” says Tavasoli. “That's where we come in because we are able to collect their greenhouse gases and turn them into liquid products that they can either use at the facility or sell off as a new revenue stream – it's a way of easing this transition for organizations and minimizing the economic impact.”
Photo Credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)