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Professor David Sinton (MIE). Photo by Sara Collaton.

Professor David Sinton is a mechanical engineer. So at first glance it seems odd his lab is full of algae. Sinton’s research has always focused on small-scale plumbing, or fluidics — the movement of fluid at the micro- and nano-scale. Traditional applications have been exclusively biomedical, and Sinton’s work before 2004 was too.

His early work in energy focused on fuel cell technologies, as well as sensors that combine fluidics and optics. On a sabbatical in 2009, he started thinking about how the tools of fluidics and optics could be applied broadly to sustainable energy challenges.

“The first thing that struck me about energy is that it’s so big. In terms of scale, it’s the biggest problem we have. I’m a small-scale fluids guy, so it wasn’t an obvious fit. Certainly not every energy challenge needs a guy like me. I had to think about where I could have impact.”

He arrived at photosynthesis. “The largest energy process on earth is accomplished at small scales, through light and fluid interactions in plants and photosynthetic microorganisms distributed all around the world.”

If it’s been a long time since high school bio, here’s a refresher: plants (and some creatures like bacteria) convert sunlight into energy. Sunlight + carbon dioxide + water = oxygen and energy (in the form of sugars).

After making the connection between small-scale fluids, optics and photosynthesis, Professor Sinton started working with microalgae. The type of algae we see in ponds and puddles has great potential to generate fuel from solar energy. “In terms of fuel production per area, you can do a much better job growing algae than you can with traditional biofuels,” he explains.

The $100,000 McLean award will help advance his work in sustainable energy. The prestigious McLean Award honours emerging leaders in basic research in the fields of physics, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, engineering sciences, and statistics. The award is jointly funded by a gift from U of T alumnus William McLean and U of T’s Connaught Fund. Created from the 1972 sale of Connaught Laboratories, which first mass-produced U of T’s Nobel award-winning discovery of  insulin, the Connaught Fund invests close to $4 million annually in emerging and established scholars at U of T.

“Professor Sinton exemplifies the spirit of the Connaught Fund,” says Judith Chadwick, U of T’s assistant vice president (research services). “Connaught is dedicated to supporting researchers who are targeting unmet societal ends and who have the potential to make a transformative contribution. On behalf of the University of Toronto, I extend my congratulations to him on this well-deserved award.”

To read the full profile on Professor Sinton, visit U of T’s Research & Innovation website.

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