The Engineer's Impact - Michael Boutilier

Your inside look at faculty’s research and its effect on society

In this new Q&A series, we’ll feature Western Engineering faculty members to gain a succinct overview of their research, understand its impact on society, and discover intriguing little-known facts.

Meet Western Engineering's Assistant Professor, Michael Boutilier, who has a joint appointment in the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering and the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

abouzarCan you describe your research?

Converting salt water into drinking water and removing greenhouse gases from the air are examples of processes where a mixture is separated into parts.  I am working to develop technology that can accomplish such separations with much lower energy usage than is currently possible.  I make single atom thick membranes from materials such as graphene.  Smaller molecules, like water, can pass through holes a few atoms wide in these materials, while larger molecules or dissolved salts get stuck. The extreme thinness of the material is what allows small molecules to pass through quickly without much energy to push them.

How does your research impact society in everyday life?

More efficient separation technologies stand to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions significantly.  They could reduce the energy cost where separations are currently performed and enable more economical options for carbon capture elsewhere.  Power generation, fertilizer manufacturing, chemical production, water purification and heavy transportation are important applications where atomically thin membranes could have a major impact.

What inspired you to research separation technology and its potential applications in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving various industries?

More than the applications of graphene membranes, my interest in this field came from a desire to understand fluid flow at the nanoscale.  Having had prior research experience in aerodynamics and gas flows, I became curious how fluids would behave when flowing through geometries that are only a molecule or two wide.  At this scale, the equations taught in engineering fluid mechanics courses break down and different factors need to be considered in design.