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Lakehead University Magazine Fall/Winter 2008

Research: A Bright Future for Biorefining

W Qin Professor Wensheng Qin

Lakehead's new PhD program in Biotechnology is being shaped by an expert in molecular biology and plant biotechnology from Stanford University, who now holds the title of Ontario Research Chair in Biorefining Research.

Professor Wensheng Qin (pronounced Ching) arrived in Thunder Bay from California last May and has settled into a suite of offices on the third floor of 1294 Balmoral Street building, next to the Paleo-DNA Laboratory.

He will be sharing this space with Robert Dekker, the newly hired Director of Lakehead University's Biorefining Research Initiative.

Robert Dekker is a distinguished biochemist who is an acknowledged authority on the biodegradation of lignocellulosic materials. He was born in Holland and raised in Australia, and has conducted collaborative research projects with Brazil, Germany, New Zealand, Spain and South Africa. Dekker will be leading Lakehead's Biorefining Research Initiative that should help Canada find new uses for its abundant supplies of forest biomass.

According to Wensheng Qin, discussions are currently under way with Northern Ontario's pulp and paper mills and other potential industry partners to see how they would like to get involved. Grant proposals are also being written to secure additional research funding from provincial and federal granting agencies.

The future for biorefining research in Northwestern Ontario looks bright. Qin has already recruited two PhD students and is ordering equipment for his research lab. In three to four years time, if they are successful, Miranda Maki and Mehdi Dashtban might very well be the first graduates of Lakehead University's PhD program in Biotechnology.

Qin's research falls into three main areas. The first is in microbial engineering for large-scale cellulase (enzyme) production, and in this research he is collaborating with Biology Professor Kam Leung. "From this project, we expect to develop new engineered microorganisms which can be largely used in industrial production of cellulase, an enzyme enormously and urgently needed for biomass conversion and biofuel production," says Qin. "With cost-effective production of this enzyme, Canada can take the advantage of its rich biomass resources and produce more competitive biofuels. As well, we will use less fossil oil, decrease greenhouse gas emissions, and prevent global warming."

The second area pertains to the bioconversion of forest biomass and pulp and paper sludge to useful bioproducts and biofuels. "On this project," says Qin, "we are actively collaborating with Northwestern Ontario pulp and paper mills to make full use of their sludge wastes to produce valuable products. This technology will not only decrease paper mill waste treatment costs, but also earn profits by producing bioproducts."

And the third research area is to generate a transgenic canola plant that could be successfully grown in northern latitudes for bio-oil production. Says Qin: "In Northern Canada, a large amount of land has not been well used; one of the main limiting factors is low temperature in winters. We will be developing cold-resistant transgenic canola. Northern land will become suitable for growing canola, and farmers will earn more income."

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