“My work is about doing all your cooking in one pot.” Flora Ng points toward a picture of a 220,000-tonnes-per-year chemical plant that uses some of her ground-breaking catalytic research. “Of course,” she says, “sometimes the pot is quite large.”
For 20 years, Flora, a Waterloo chemical engineering professor, has been at the forefront of research into catalytic distillation. “Catalysis speeds up the rate of chemical reactions while distillation separates out the chemical products you are interested in,” she explains. “Combining the two processes is more productive and uses less energy.”
More recently, Flora and her team have been at work on green energy processes, including one that creates biodiesels from waste oils. Currently, she’s working to green the oil sands. Oil sands bitumen comes out of the ground as a tar-thick emulsion of oil and water. Right now surfactants are used to separate the bitumen from the water, then hydrogen is added to upgrade the bitumen into gasoline and diesel. Flora has developed nano-catalysts that react with the water to produce hydrogen, removing the water and upgrading the bitumen in a single step.
In 2007, Flora became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and in 2008, she won the Chemical Institute of Canada’s Catalysis Award. As well in 2008, she became the third engineering professor – and only the second woman, campus-wide – to be given the University of Waterloo’s highest academic honour, University Professor.