Dr. David Wilkinson: Powering up Canada’s research efforts in clean energy and water technology


About: Professor and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Clean Energy and Fuel Cells, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, UBC; Fellow, Royal Society of Canada, Engineering Institute of Canada, Canadian Academy of Engineering and the Chemical Institute of Canada, and recipient of multiple international awards; co-PI for RESEAU research project 1.2: Electrochemical Processes for Groundwater and Surface Water Treatment

Dr. David Wilkinson is intimately familiar with the important relationship between water and energy. Working first in the private sector and later as an academic researcher, he’s spent the last 35 years amassing an impressive track record in electrochemistry, electrochemical engineering and clean energy technology development, including work in (among many other things) water and wastewater treatment applications. By any measure, his contribution to Canadian innovation has been substantial, with more than 77 patents, 150 refereed publications and numerous technical reports to his credit. 

Along the way, he developed another passion that involves water and energy – competitive rowing. From 1976 to 1980, Dr. Wilkinson was on Canada’s national team, representing the nation at many international events. (It’s a family affair – son Michael and daughter Lauren both competed at the 2012 Olympic Games, with Lauren earning a silver medal in the women’s eight competition.) 

“Energy is one of the most important challenges facing humanity today,” he says. “Our food supply, water and health are all affected by it, and so it is key to our survival and sustainability. The global use of energy is going to double by the middle of this century, and so we have to come up with sustainable, non-destructive solutions to energy and resource use.

 “Water is likely going to be the more important issue in the shorter term due to increasing unsustainable useage and climate change.”

Dr. Wilkinson’s deep expertise in electrochemistry makes him an invaluable asset to the RES’EAU research team as the network strives to develop cost-effective, robust, game-changing water treatment technologies for Canada’s small, rural and First Nations communities. Currently, he is a co-PI on a project that seeks to develop novel ways to remove natural organic matter and heavy metals from ground and surface waters and to generate hydrogen peroxide and ferrate on site for use in water treatment processes.  

“RESEAU has a very specific, unique set of problems to solve for small communities, which gives us an opportunity to look at new ways of doing things,” he explains. “I really enjoy the innovation aspect – I have worked in product development, but I enjoy working at the cutting edge of research more. Plus, the human factor is important and of interest to me. It is very satisfying to know that my work – whether it’s in batteries, fuel cells, solar or water treatment issues – may have a very significant benefit in terms of sustainability.”

Prior to working with RESEAU, Dr. Wilkinson notes he was aware of the technological challenges of water treatment approaches for small systems, but not the scope of the drinking water issues many small communities are experiencing from coast to coast. He says it was a “revelation” to learn that a Western nation rich in water resources could have nearly six million of its people at risk for water-borne disease in small systems. Working with First Nations communities through the network’s Community Circles program has also been an eye-opener.

“I have learned a lot about the challenges and barriers they face, and because so many different scientific disciplines are involved in RES’EAU’s work, it’s evident just how important the social license and communications side of our work is,” Dr. Wilkinson says. “As a researcher, that’s not something you tend to think about every day.”

Soundbites

On solving water treatment problems in small communities as both a social justice issue and a technological and commercialization challenge:

“In North America, we tend to see very short-term thinking revolving around a political cycle of four years as well as a dot-com mentality, where if a technology won’t turn a profit in three or four years, it’s not worth paying attention to. We have to ensure that our political leaders and fellow Canadians understand the gravity of the situation and support research into sustainable technologies – otherwise we can only act in reactionary mode.” 

On Canada’s potential global role in water treatment research and development:

“Water is such an important issue for Canada, and it requires support for research and implementation of new solutions that are truly innovative. Canada has the potential to be a world leader in innovation for water treatment, so it would be great to see us develop a global industry around water solutions – but we have a lot of work to do on the commercialization side of the equation.”