Home > News > Advancing Sustainable Materials and Technologies: An Interview with Chemical Engineering Professor Pedram Fatehi

Advancing Sustainable Materials and Technologies: An Interview with Chemical Engineering Professor Pedram Fatehi

29 May 2023
AIT webmaster

By Kritagya Regmi

29 May 2023- AIT Alum Professor Pedram Fatehi holds a position as a Chemical Engineering Professor at Lakehead University, Canada. His research interests focus on developing smart bio-based polymers and advanced materials and technologies for sustainable wastewater and water treatment. His work involves understanding the fundamental principles of these processes and their applications and commercialization potential.

Prof. Fatehi has published extensively in high-impact journals such as ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, Small, Green Chemistry, ChemSusChem and his research has been cited over 7100 times. He also serves on the editorial board of several academic journals and has been recognized with several prestigious awards for his contributions to the field of chemical engineering, including the Hatch Innovation award, Emerging Leaders of Chemical Engineering from Canadian Society of Chemical Engineers. He completed his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada, in 2009 and a Master’s in Pulp and Paper Technology in 2005 from the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT). 

This month, AIT’s Public Affairs talked to Prof. Fatehi to discuss his work and academic life at AIT.

1. Please tell us about your background and professional journey.

As a chemical engineer, I obtained my BSc in Iran in 2001 and gained two years of work experience before pursuing my MSc at AIT’s Pulp and Paper Technology Program at AIT in Thailand. There, I honed my expertise in the pulp and paper industry, which set the foundation for my career. After that, I completed my Ph.D. in a related field and shifted my research focus to sustainable polymers and materials.

After completing my Ph.D. in 2009, I worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Brunswick for two years. In 2011, I joined Lakehead University as an assistant professor and have since been promoted twice to my current position as a Professor and Director of the Biorefining Research Institute. Additionally, I have held positions as a Canada Research Chair and an Industrial Research Chair since 2015, which I will continue until 2025.

At Lakehead University, I work alongside ten other professors who also hold Canada Research Chair positions, and together, we promote and conduct innovative research to create sustainable products and materials. Our focus is on creating sustainable products and materials through innovative research.

2. Please tell us about the diverse projects you are currently involved in and how it is helping to achieve your goal.

My work is centered around developing sustainable materials and processes focusing on lignin and cellulose-based nanomaterials. These materials are sustainable alternatives to oil-based products, and through my research, I am expanding our understanding of lignin-based, cellulose-based, and bio-refining technologies. This research is crucial as many countries, including Canada, the USA, and several European countries, prioritize using sustainable materials over traditional oil-based ones. 

In addition to nanomaterials, I am involved in developing lignin and cellulose-based materials such as polymeric films, foams, conductive polymers, and aerogels, which have various applications in food packaging, touch screens, and insulation materials. I am also producing lignin-based and cellulose-based flocculants for wastewater treatment, which are cheaper, more efficient, and biodegradable than traditional alternatives.

My work is grounded in scientific principles, and I have obtained patents for three processes that are now available for commercial use. I am also involved in sustainable battery and paint projects that aim to eliminate the use of solvent-based materials. As a member of the Canadian Standard Association and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), I am part of a group developing standard methods for analyzing lignin. We have developed four standards already, with two more in the works each year. As part of the technical side and the editorial board for these standards, I am making significant contributions to the industry, ensuring that things are done correctly and that the use of lignin is advanced. I am also a member of the American Chemical Society (ACS) and organize two symposiums on lignin and lignin-based materials each year. Additionally, I am involved in organizing the lignin conference, which is part of the ACS conference that attracts 10,000 to 15,000 participants every year, further advancing the understanding and use of lignin in the industry.

We are currently involved in various sustainability projects, including batteries, sustainable polymers, and composites. We are also addressing the issue of fertilizer and pesticide shortages after the war in Ukraine and its impact on food security. We focus on developing sustainable alternatives using lignocellulosic materials like wood and agricultural waste. In addition, we are working with companies on sustainable fertilizers and have recently entered the field of sustainable pesticides. The common element among all these projects is lignin and cellulose, which contribute to their sustainable functionality and biodegradability. Through my work, I am committed to creating a more sustainable future and advancing the use of lignocellulosic materials to help us achieve this goal.

3. What countries have you collaborated with, and in what capacities have these collaborations taken place?

I have collaborated with various countries, including Sweden, Finland, Germany, France, China, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Spain, the US, Mexico, South Africa, India, and Norway, in different capacities. These collaborations have involved working with universities, companies, and exchange programs for graduate students. For example, In France and Spain, I host exchange students who receive training in my lab and then return to their respective institutions. Additionally, in China, I have hosted numerous professors and students in my lab for training and have also worked on a project with Japan and participated in an exchange program with Singapore. The nature of these collaborations varies depending on the goals and interests of the parties involved.

4. Please share your vision for the future and how you hope to bring change through your work.

There are two aspects to this question. Firstly, how I see the projects and research currently being carried out, and secondly, how I would like to contribute to research in the future. I believe sustainable materials and chemicals are the future, whether we like them or not. In the next 20 years, we will see a shift towards sustainable materials, and I want to be part of that shift as a contributor.

Regarding how I would like to contribute to research, I have seen the benefits of collaboration. I have worked alone on specific projects and collaboratively with different professors from around the world. The outcomes of collaborative work are much more meaningful as different people can provide input from different angles. I want to continue to develop more collaboration in my research by starting projects, sending students, and collaborating with various universities and researchers.

5. What specific sustainable practices can be implemented by utilizing the natural resources of Thailand, and how do you plan to promote these practices through the knowledge hub at AIT?

I am interested in joining AIT for several reasons. Firstly, I have spent significant time there, and it holds a special place in my heart. Secondly, Thailand is abundant in natural resources that can be utilized in various industries, making it an ideal location for promoting sustainable practices. Moreover, Thailand’s labor cost is relatively low compared to other countries, making it an attractive location for developing industries.

In addition to these factors, AIT has excellent professors with whom I would love to collaborate to make a more significant impact on sustainable research and science. We can make a positive change by utilizing the current potential and adding something beneficial to AIT and the region. Therefore, I am actively seeking opportunities to collaborate with people at AIT to develop a knowledge hub that utilizes these resources sustainably, which can lead to significant investment and growth opportunities.

6. Could you share your experience at AIT with us? 

I enrolled at AIT in August 2003 and graduated in June 2005. However, I remained at AIT until mid-July to work on a project with one of the professors. As a chemical engineering student without prior knowledge of pulp and paper, I faced significant challenges at AIT. Competing with my experienced classmates who had extensive knowledge in the field was difficult, and the competition was fierce. Despite these challenges, I worked very hard to achieve my goal of becoming a professor. 

The first term was particularly tough, but I adapted well in the following terms, and my grades were consistently good. Despite the difficulties, I enjoyed my time at AIT and made great memories. I enjoyed spending time at Korea House, cafeteria, and swimming pool. I also took the opportunity to travel to different places. On weekends, I would have fun with my friends after studying hard during the week. In my free time, I also played football and tennis. Overall, my time at AIT was a challenging yet rewarding experience that helped me achieve my goals.

7. Could you share any additional insights on AIT’s impact on shaping your career path?

AIT played a pivotal role in shaping my career path and helping me discover my true interests. As a chemical engineering student, I had numerous career paths available. However, studying pulp and paper at AIT sparked a passion I had never felt before. This newfound interest led me to explore various universities in Australia, Singapore, the US, and Canada that offered pulp and paper programs. Although I received admission offers from several exceptional schools for different programs, I ultimately chose to continue in this field because of my passion. Looking back, I have never regretted my decision and have always been proud of what I accomplished at AIT.

8. Could you share some insights on balancing your personal and professional life?

Maintaining a work-life balance can be difficult, especially when work involves frequent travel. For my work, I am required to travel to various locations to establish partnerships, but I also enjoy exploring research and opportunities in different parts of the world. However, this can impact my family, so I prioritize making arrangements that minimize their disruption. Despite the challenges, travel is a valuable experience, as I encounter unexpected situations and learn something new. Therefore, I encourage others to travel whenever possible and even send my students to broaden their horizons and develop their skills.

9. What advice or message would you give to younger generations looking to develop their career paths?

From my perspective, it is crucial for the younger generation to establish a clear direction in life and strive towards achieving it. With the world evolving quickly, having a long-term vision and concentrating on reaching the intended objective is essential. Furthermore, young researchers should seize every chance that presents itself. With the internet and the ease of transportation, students have access to a multitude of opportunities that can facilitate their development and learning. Therefore, I advise them to set a clear goal, maintain their focus, and make the most of available opportunities.