Robert Burrell, BSc, MSc,PhD

Professor, ENG Biomedical Engineering


Professor, ENG Biomedical Engineering
(780) 492-4972


Area of Study / Keywords

nanomaterials for diagnosis and treatment of disease


Dr. Robert Burrell is currently appointed as Professor, Chair in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

Dr. Robert Burrell, is the Sorensen Chair in Commercialization of Biomedical Technology and a Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Chemical and Materials Engineering in the Faculties of Engineering and Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta.  He is a former two term Canada Research Chair in Nanostructured Biomaterials. He has been recognized worldwide for his work in wound care. He is a named inventor on >300 patents and patent applications worldwide including those for Acticoat dressings, the world’s first therapeutic application of nanotechnology. In Canada, he has won the two highest awards for Innovation – the Governor General’s Innovation Award and Principal Award from the Manning Foundation. He has also received the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medal, the Meritorious Service Cross, is a fellow of The Canadian Academy of Health Sciences and has won the Jonas Salk Award, the ASM International - ASM Engineering Materials Achievement Award, World Union of Wound Healing Society Lifetime Achievement Award, Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and a member of the Alberta Order of Excellence.


Over the course of his career, Dr. Burrell has made multiple discoveries whose reach have extended worldwide. With over 300 patents worldwide, 67 peer-reviewed papers, and numerous medical devices to his name, Dr. Burrell is a significant contributor to the advancements occurring within the medical field. However, his most outstanding contribution to date is his discovery, development, and successful commercialization of the world’s first therapeutic application of a nanomaterials-based technology: Acticoat™ wound dressings.

In the mid 1980s, while working in the advanced materials laboratory of Alcan International in Kingston, Ontario, Dr. Burrell, who was inspired by Feynman (1959) and Taniguichi’s (1974) theories on materials at the nanoscale, took a closer look into the inner workings of materials at the atomic/cluster level. Because he had an interest in developing a technology to combat antimicrobial resistant organisms, Dr. Burrell, with an understanding that silver had antimicrobial properties, wondered how useful noble metals might be if they were manipulated at the atomic scale. Spurred by his curiosity, Dr. Burrell generated materials made of thousands of 3-4nm thick, alternating layers of silver (Ag) and copper (Cu), then used an argon etch to take advantage of the differential etch rates of the two metals, creating a film of exposed alternating layers of Ag and Cu. These materials were then placed in an electrolyte to determine if the exposed layers would still function as galvanic cells and release Cu as proof of the electrochemical metal ion delivery system. Expectedly, the experiment resulted in the release of Cu ions; however, to Dr. Burrell’s surprise, a significant quantity of total silver was released. There was no textbook explanation for the release of silver from a silver/copper galvanic cell, and without a textbook explanation Dr. Burrell was forced to draw his own conclusions. He concluded that during the etching process the silver was redeposited as a nanocrystalline material that had very different properties than bulk silver. Encouraged by this experiment, Dr. Burrell began the search for a nanostructured silver material that behaved differently, both biologically and chemically, to bulk silver which has no antimicrobial properties of its own. After a considerable effort in the laboratory, Burrell developed a process that produced thin nanostructured films possessing very potent antimicrobial activity. These films and the products that could be made from them were then patented.

            Only seven years post-patenting, Acticoat™ was commercialized for worldwide distribution, and the results were revolutionary. The nano-silver coated dressings were developed to treat patients with injuries ranging from severe burn to chronic, acute and traumatic wounds.  Such effectiveness had never been witnessed before, and as of yet has not been surpassed. Shortly after the dressings were introduced, they were used to treat survivors of the 9/11 attack in New York City in September 2001, the Bali Bombing in October 2002, and the Station Night Club Fire, in West Warwick, Rhode Island in February 2003. But the reach of Acticoat™ has extended globally. These dressings have become the treatment of choice in Australian burn units where pediatric patients with burns up to 40% of their body are treated as outpatients, leaving patients with better outcomes and better quality of life. Acticoat™ even provides hope for the people who have no hope as was the case for 12 individuals with severe pulmonary conditions. After being administered an inhalant form of Acticoat™ all 12 people survived. But not only are rare conditions able to be treated, so are more common conditions. Diabetic foot ulcers are another example of how essential Acticoat™ has been in wound care. These foot ulcers are slow to heal, they can get infected, and amputations are often necessary. Unfortunately, a diabetic with an amputation has a five-year survival rate of 45% which is worse than for colon cancer (55%). Therefore, the best solution is to prevent amputation by healing these difficult wounds. Acticoat™ provides that solution. As diabetes is a worldwide epidemic affecting approximately 422 million people, it is clear that developing products suited to diabetic health concerns is of extreme importance.

Wound care is not a trivial problem. The risk is that failed wound care can lead to death as easily in the 1st world (e.g. Christopher Reeve) as in the 3rd world (e.g. 1000s of diabetics). But Acticoat™ dressings have saved lives and limbs and continue to save them through their revolutionary capabilities. As the world’s first commercial application of nanotechnology, it has been the vanguard for an industry in medical nanomaterials. 12 million people from over 120 different countries have benefitted from the outcome of Burrell’s research, development and commercialization efforts.