Fellow in Focus: David Layzell, FRSC

Many would be surprised to learn that a plant physiologist is at the helm of Canada’s leading energy research collaborative, but they haven’t met Dr. David Layzell, Executive Director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment, and Economy (ISEEE) and Fellow of the RSC: The Academies of Arts, Humanities and Sciences of Canada.

Layzell calls it like it is: “We live in an energy hungry world.” When you think about energy, cars, home heating, and lighting probably come to mind. But what about the meat and vegetables on your dinner plate? “It takes between four and eight units of fossil fuel energy to produce one unit of food energy,” says Layzell. This is an astoundingly large ratio! Reducing it could significantly help to lessen our energy consumption. This thinking was instrumental in shaping Layzell’s career. With the OPEC oil crisis looming in 1973, and an interest in finding solutions to real world problems, he turned to plants as a means to help combat society’s energy obesity.

In particular, Layzell studied what he describes as a “landlord-tenant relationship” in nodules that grow on the root systems of legume plants like soybean or peas. The plant plays the role of landlord and the bacteria are the tenants. “This really is a magical relationship,” explains Layzell. The plant provides "room and board" for the bacteria and the bacteria pays the plant back by providing an energy-rich form of nitrogen that the plant needs to grow and prosper. This means that legumes can thrive without fertilizer nitrogen, one of the largest fossil energy inputs into agricultural systems.

“The ‘Holy Grail’ in this research area was to understand the terms and conditions of this landlord-tenant relationship so that it could be improved or even transferred to other, non-legume crops like, corn, wheat or rice,” explains Layzell. But in order to familiarize himself with the landlord-tenant agreement on the root nodules of plants, Layzell had to look to other disciplines to develop innovative tools. “If you want solutions, you have to work across disciplines,” he says, a motto that has shaped his career. So Layzell became an academic Renaissance Man, acquainting himself with electronics, chemical engineering, and mathematical modelling, just to name a few subjects. This resulted in the invention of several novel scientific instruments and technologies accompanied by a number of patents. Layzell also co-founded Qubit Systems Inc., a spin-off company from Queen’s University that, according to Layzell, “designs, builds and markets instruments for research and teaching in the biological and environmental sciences.”

Many of the instruments Layzell developed were associated with the low level detection of atmospheric gases, and this drew him into work on greenhouse gas management and climate change, hot topics in the latter half of the nineties, especially with the introduction of the Kyoto Protocol in December 1997. This opened the door for BIOCAP Canada, a national university-based research foundation for which Layzell served as founding president and CEO, to begin operations in 1998.

With BIOCAP, Layzell worked to set up national networks and engage diverse stakeholders to coordinate, fund, and communicate research on biological solutions to climate change and clean energy. Under Layzell’s leadership, BIOCAP had a vast reach, leveraging more than $54 million in funding from a variety of stakeholders and supporting research involving 38 universities. Despite its success, BIOCAP was unable to secure long-term funding and ceased operations in 2008.

But this did not dissuade Layzell. “We’re sitting on the cusp of the greatest energy transformation that the world has ever seen,” says Layzell. “We need to adopt radical new perspectives about how we acquire, transform and use energy in all aspects of our lives.” This led Layzell to the energy capital of Canada, Calgary, and ISEEE.

Established in 2003, ISEEE is a cross-faculty research group seated at the University of Calgary. Layzell is building research and teaching initiatives across six different faculties, grooming a new generation of Renaissance Academics working to find solutions to the environmental challenges of energy production and use. “We need to look outward and work with those from other disciplines,” says Layzell, speaking from his own expertise. “If we don’t, we’re not going to make the kind of contributions that are so needed.” If Layzell’s career is any indication of the benefits of breaking down disciplinary silos, we can expect big things from ISEEE.

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