Performance Enhancers for Nature

Many of the seemingly harmless products we use in our daily lives have a nasty afterlife as environmental toxins, but civil engineering professor James Nicell is giving nature much-needed reinforcement.

An award-winning teacher, researcher and associate member of the inter-faculty McGill School of Environment, Nicell is used to looking at all sides of a problem. Treating waste material that flows straight from our homes, factories and cities into the rivers and air demands a novel approach.

Working closely with chemical engineering professor David Cooper, Nicell is currently studying plasticizers used in everything from construction to automobiles. We dump millions of tonnes of these chemicals into the environment annually. Though relatively harmless on their own, Cooper and Nicell found that they break down into much more toxic chemicals that remain in the environment. Together with other researchers at McGill, they are looking to develop a product that will be safer.

Plasticizers are only one of many pollutants—all kinds of chemicals end up being released into the atmosphere and waterways. Rather than fight these chemicals with more chemicals, Nicell and his colleagues turned to nature. Using bacteria to produce enzymes—chemicals that trigger biological processes—Nicell hopes to find natural treatments to neutralize the environmental toxins. “We’re looking to take waste materials and grow micro-organisms on them that produce the enzyme. So we’re turning the waste material into a resource, creating a high-value enzyme and adding that to the treatment system,” he says.

James Nicell’s research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the EJLB Foundation.