Posts Categorized: Environmental

Modelling the health benefits of electric cars

Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivMin) and her team have modelled the potential human health impacts of a large-scale shift to electric vehicles across the GTHA. (Photo: Roberta Baker)

Electric vehicles are often touted as a means of mitigating climate change, but a new modelling study suggests that their public health benefits may be just as significant.

“Local air pollution within urban environments is highly detrimental to human health,” says Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivMin), who led the research. “When you have an electric vehicle with no tailpipe emissions, you’re removing a wide range of contaminants — from nitrogen oxides to fine particulate matter— from the near-road environment and shifting them to power plants. The net effect remains a large improvement in air quality.”

Health Canada estimates that 14,600 premature deaths per year can be attributed to air pollution, with more than 3,000 of these in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA). Hatzopoulou and her team set out to model how that might change under a significant shift from internal combustion vehicles to electric ones.

The researchers created computer simulations for a number of different scenarios, such as replacing 20%, 50% or 100% of all cars and SUVs in the GTHA to electric ones. They also modelled the effect of switching transit buses over to electric buses, and of replacing all transport trucks with newer, less emitting models.

The simulations accounted for the fact that even though electric vehicles don’t produce any emissions themselves, they increase demand on electricity plants. If those plants burn fossil fuels, they might show increased local emissions, which the team included in their model.

“We can simulate the air quality down to areas as small as one square kilometre, so even if the overall effect is positive, we can see if there are local winners and losers,” says Hatzopoulou. “We also accounted for air pollution drifting over from upstate New York and the American Midwest, which we often can detect here in Toronto.”

For each scenario, the team calculated the predicted reduction in emissions for various air pollutants. Using epidemiological data on pollutant exposures, they then estimated the reduction in premature deaths that would be observed in that scenario.

Finally, using an economic measure known as the Value of Statistical Life (VSL), they converted the reductionin deaths into a dollar figure, as a way of quantifying the social benefits of the change.

Among the model’s predictions were:

  • Converting all cars and SUVs in the GTHA into electric vehicles would cause 313 fewer deaths per year, an estimated social benefit of $2.4 billion
  • Converting all transport trucks to more efficient models would cause 275 fewer deaths, an estimated social benefit of $2.1 billion
  • Converting  all transit systems to electric buses would cause 143 fewer deaths, an estimated social benefit of $1.1 billion

I was surprised just how strong the effect was,” says Hatzopoulou. “If you bring it down to an individual level, each electric vehicle replacing a gas-powered one brings nearly $10,000 in social benefits. Those benefits are shared by everyone, not just the people buying the cars.”

The study was published today in a report co-authored with Environmental Defence and the Ontario Public Health Association. The analysis relating to transport trucks, which included contributions from U of T Engineering professors Matthew Roorda and Daniel Posen (both CivMin) and their teams, was published last month in the journal Environmental Research.

NextHatzopoulou and her team plan to use their model to study the effects of other changes, such as reducing the overall number of cars on the road by encouraging public transit or active transportation.

“Electric vehicles are great, but with even millions of them on the road, we would still have issues such as traffic congestion,” she says. “If we want to address the climate crisis, we’re going to need behavioural modifications as well.”

“One of the things we’ve learned during this COVID-19 pandemic is that it might not be critical for everyone to commute to work every dayWe would liketo quantify the benefits — both for the environment and for our own health — of making those kinds of changes.”

By Tyler Iriving

This story originally published by Engineering News


Is there plastic in our drinking water? Probably – and U of T researchers are studying how concerned we should be

These tiny plastic particles were extracted from Toronto’s harbour by U of T researchers Chelsea Rochman and Bob Andrews (photo by Tyler Irving)

These tiny plastic particles were extracted from Toronto’s harbour by U of T researchers Chelsea Rochman and Bob Andrews (photo by Tyler Irving)

Is there plastic in your drinking water? The University of Toronto’s Bob Andrews and Chelsea Rochman say there is – but, unfortunately, they don’t have much more information to share.

“If someone asks me how microplastics in drinking water influence human health, I have to say that we have no idea,” says Rochman, an assistant professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology in U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science.

“But we should be concerned that the mismanagement of our waste has come back to haunt us.”

Plastic never really goes away. While some waste plastic is recycled or incinerated, most ends up in landfills or worse. A world-leading expert on the fate of plastic waste, Rochman has documented how it ends up in oceans, lakes, rivers, as well as along their shores and even in the bodies of aquatic animals.

“All of the big stuff that you see eventually gets broken down by sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces,” she says.

When plastic pieces become small enough that a microscope is required to see them – anywhere from a few millimetres down to a few micrometres – they are referred to as microplastics. As with larger plastic pieces, microplastics are found widely in the environment. Rochman and her team have even extracted them from the bodies of fish for sale in a commercial market.

Concern over microplastics has been floating just below the surface for some time, but it wasn’t until the fall of 2017 that the issue of microplastics in drinking water hit headlines in a big way.

A non-profit group called Orb Media took samples of tap water from around the world, found microplastics in most of their samples, and released their results to the media. As a member of both the Drinking Water Research Group and the Institute for Water Innovation, Andrews, a professor in U of T’s department of civil and mineral engineering in U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, knew that his collaborators would be curious about the story.

“Within hours, I got calls from a couple of the major water providers in southern Ontario that I work with, asking me what we were doing on this topic,” Andrews says.

Chelsea Rochman and Bob Andrews have joined forces to develop new techniques for analyzing microplastics and nanoplastics in drinking water (photo by Tyler Irving)

Chelsea Rochman and Bob Andrews have joined forces to develop new techniques for analyzing microplastics and nanoplastics in drinking water (photo by Tyler Irving)

Yet, despite his experience collaborating with drinking water providers on treatment and technology, Andrews had not researched the issue of microplastics before. So he sought advice from Rochman.

She was skeptical at first.

“I said, ‘I don’t think they’re going to be there, but sure, let’s filter some water and have a look,’” says Rochman. “We did, and they were there.”

The traditional approach to dealing with drinking water contaminants, such as heavy metals or organic compounds, is for scientists to determine a target threshold below which the risk to human health is considered minimal. Drinking water authorities then invest in treatment technologies designed to keep the levels of these contaminants below the threshold.

But there is no existing threshold for microplastics, and developing one will be complex for several reasons.

First, plastic interacts differently with the body depending on how big the pieces are. “What we’ve seen in animals is that larger pieces usually just get excreted,” says Rochman. “But the smaller particles can actually leave the gut and go into tissues, which is when you can get inflammation and other problems.”

Another challenge: There are no standardized methods for testing levels of microplastics in drinking water. Different teams employing different techniques could obtain different results, making it hard to compare scientific studies with one another.

Contamination is also an issue since tiny plastic particles shed from clothes, carpets and upholstery can get into the samples and skew the results.

These challenges are further compounded by the fact that microplastics can break down into even smaller particles known as nanoplastics. Nanoplastics may behave differently from microplastics, but information is scarce because methods for detecting them haven’t been invented yet.

“Right now, we don’t have good techniques for handling nanoplastic particles,” says Andrews. “One strategy we’re considering is to concentrate them, burn them, and analyze the gas to determine what types of plastic are there. We’d then have to back-calculate to determine their initial concentrations.”

Andrews and his team also have experience testing the toxicity of various compounds on cells grown in the lab. While they may one day go down this route for nanoplastics, for now Andrews and Rochman emphasize the importance of improved analysis as a key step towards developing policies to address the challenge of microplastics.

“California has already passed laws mandating the monitoring of microplastics in drinking water and in the ambient environment,” Rochman says.

“I think it’s good that those bills happened because they are now forcing this global methods development program, which we’re helping lead. We don’t want to throw out numbers until we feel that we have a sound method.”

The collaboration between Rochman and Andrews is funded in part by U of T’s XSeed program, an interdivisional research-funding program designed to promote multidisciplinary research. XSeed projects include one principal investigator from U of T Engineering and one from another university division – in this case, the Faculty of Arts & Science.

“Dealing with microplastics is the kind of challenge that truly does require people from different disciplines to work together,” says Andrews. “Neither of us could do this alone.”

By Tyler Irving


Originally posted in U of T News


Reconciliation through engineering

Professor Jennifer Drake (CivMin) presents to Indigenous leaders from across Ontario at the Sioux Lookout Innovation Station. The event is part of the Reconciliation Through Engineering Initiative, a collaboration between Indigenous communities and U of T Engineering’s Centre for Global Engineering (CGEN). (Photo: Shakya Sur)

Professor Jennifer Drake (CivMin) presents to Indigenous leaders from across Ontario at the Sioux Lookout Innovation Station. The event is part of the Reconciliation Through Engineering Initiative, a collaboration between Indigenous communities and U of T Engineering’s Centre for Global Engineering (CGEN). (Photo: Shakya Sur)

Researchers at the Centre for Global Engineering (CGEN) are collaborating with Indigenous communities to address pressing infrastructure challenges facing geographically disparate communities across Canada.

CGEN’s Reconciliation Through Engineering Initiative (RTEI) will identify six projects that aim to improve access to clean drinking water, food security, housing, health care, transportation and communication systems from a multi-disciplinary and holistic perspective.

Since December, CGEN’s approach has been to first listen, learn and gather perspectives before defining any projects, says RTEI program lead Sonia Molodecky and research associate Shakya Sur.

“Our first step was to meet with Indigenous elders, youth, men and women to really understand — first and foremost — how we may approach a collaborative research relationship founded on respect and reciprocity,” says Molodecky. “We recognize that there are 10,000-plus years of knowledge and expertise that Indigenous Peoples have about their communities, relationships with the natural environment, and the interconnection and interdependence of all things. There is a lot we can learn. We are embarking on a co-learning journey.”

Two projects are in their early stages of development: one in northern Ontario and the high Arctic will focus on optimizing transportation routes to ensure timely delivery of food and supplies to communities. This work will have a multidisciplinary team of researchers, including professors Chris Beck (MIE), Chi-Guhn Lee (MIE), Shoshanna Saxe (CivMin), Tracey Galloway(Anthropology) and Michael Widener (Geography).

The second project will focus on developing a framework for designing building ventilation, envelope and integration of landscape-design features to mitigate mold, a significant concern for many Indigenous communities in Canada, says Sur.

“This work will lead to producing a set of housing guidelines that will inform the building of safer and healthier homes in the long term,” he says. “In addition to focusing on ventilation and building envelope design, the project will utilize landscape-design principles and an understanding of the relationship of the house to natural environment, to augment the overall performance of the house, as well as strengthen the residents’ connection to the land. Ultimately, this will contribute towards the long-term sustainability of the overall research outcomes.”  This project will involve professors Marianne Touchie (CivMin), Bomani Khemet (Architecture) and Liat Margolis(Architecture).

On June 17 and 18, CGEN co-sponsored the First Annual Innovation Station Event in Lac Seul First Nation, where they met with Indigenous leaders representing 21 communities serviced by the Sioux Lookout area, in order to understand their needs and priorities and identify future partnerships. Among those present were former Chief Clifford Bull, Special Advisor on Indigenous affairs to the Ontario government, Doug Lawrance, Mayor of Sioux Lookout as well as a number of local industry and service providers.

Researchers in attendance included, professors Arthur Chan (ChemE), Jennifer Drake (CivMin), Jeffrey Siegel (CivMin), as well as Galloway and Bonnie McElhinny (Anthropology). Faculty members presented on their research expertise and learned about the communities’ challenges to better pinpoint potential areas for collaboration.

Also joining them was Elder Whabagoon, who stepped on the soil of her home community of Lac Seul First Nation for the first time since being taken away almost 59 years ago during the ‘Sixties Scoop’. Elder Whabagoon presented an initiative she co-created in partnership with University of Toronto Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design (FALD) and First Nations House (FNH) and the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority (TRCA), called Nikibii Dawadinna Giigwag. This program works with Indigenous youth to re-connect their spirit with the land through the design of green infrastructure, architecture and land-based teachings.

“It was a very emotional experience coming home. My heart and feet felt grounded for the first time. My heart is full and I am so very grateful for the opportunity. I am very hopeful for the work going forward with my community and see real change being possible through this initiative” said Whabagoon.

Over the next twelve months, Molodecky and Sur will finalize the six research projects, secure further funding to support community participation, and host workshops at the university to give U of T Engineering students an opportunity to learn about the challenges facing Indigenous communities as well as the robust knowledge systems that they are using to address these challenges.

“We’re looking at the full picture. This is an opportunity for us to do things in a much more sustainable way, and the right way, thinking about many generations down the road,” says Sur. “The way to do that is to involve the youth — in our community and in Indigenous communities — so we can carry this effort forward, past the duration of the projects themselves.”

By Liz Do

 

This article originally posted on Uof T Engineering News


Under pressure: Modelling intermittent water supplies to improve public health

Professor David Taylor analyzes the impact of intermittent water systems, as well as other water distribution technologies, on public health. (Photo: Roberta Baker)

In Toronto, when you turn on a water tap, water comes out. But for more than a billion people around the world, that is not always the case.

“About 21% of the world’s water pipes don’t usually have water in them,” says Professor David Taylor (CivMin, CGEN), who studies water treatment and distribution in the developing world.

“For example, in many neighbourhoods in Delhi, where I’ve worked extensively, the city will deliver you two hours of water in the morning, and then another hour in the evening,” he says.

North American water industry experts may consider this form of intermittent water delivery bizarre: pipes that are constantly emptying and filling are more prone to wear. Keeping pipes full also creates positive pressure that keeps contaminants out — when they are empty, sewage or other contaminants can leak in, only to get washed downstream the next time the pipes fill.

But Taylor’s research shows out that turning off the taps at the source can actually have some advantages.

“If you have no budget to repair leaking pipes, the simplest solution is to turn the water off, because an empty pipe can’t leak,” says Taylor, who recently became the first budgetary appointment to the Faculty’s Centre for Global Engineering (CGEN). “If Delhi’s pipes were full all the time, they would leak seven times as much water as they do now.”

During his PhD research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which was supported by The Tata Trusts, Taylor focused on modelling the distribution system in Delhi and trying to determine how much water per day would meet the needs of the city’s 18 million residents. One of the key challenges was a lack of basic information about the system’s structure.

“Missing information is a classic problem for old infrastructure; in London, England, many of the storm sewers are still unmapped,” says Taylor. “The same is true for Delhi’s water pipes. I had operators tell me ‘We know we’re missing at least one 12-inch diameter pipe that joins network one and network two. How do we find it?’”

Without the resources to deal with missing or broken infrastructure, utility operators typically use trial and error to make the best use of the system that they have. That’s where Taylor sees his modelling and analysis work providing the most value.

“It’s partly a triage problem,” he says. “Maybe 24 hours a day really is ideal, but it could also be the case that four to six hours a day is exponentially better than one or two. So maybe we should get all areas to that level as a first step. And if that’s the goal, where do we start? Those are the questions I work on – which we need to answer if we’re serious about meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6.1 and the Human Right to Water.”

By Tyler Irving

 

This article originally posted on U of T Engineering News 


Microplastics in drinking water: how much is too much?

Professors Chelsea Rochman (left, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) and Bob Andrews (right, CivMin) have joined forces to develop new techniques for analyzing microplastics and nanoplastics in drinking water. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Is there plastic in your drinking water? Professors Bob Andrews (CivMin) and Chelsea Rochman (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) say there is — but right now, researchers don’t know much more than that.

“If someone asks me how microplastics in drinking water influence human health, I have to say that we have no idea,” says Rochman. “But we should be concerned that the mismanagement of our waste has come back to haunt us.”

Plastic never really goes away. While some waste plastic is recycled or incinerated, most ends up in landfills or worse. A world-leading expert on the fate of plastic waste, Rochman has documented how it ends up in oceans, lakes, rivers, as well as along their shores and even in the bodies of aquatic animals.

“All of the big stuff that you see eventually gets broken down by sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces,” she says. When they become small enough a microscope is required to see them — anywhere from a few millimetres down to a few micrometres — they are referred to as microplastics.

As with larger plastic pieces, microplastics are found widely in the environment. Rochman and her team have even extracted them from the bodies of fish for sale in a commercial market.

Concern over microplastics has been floating just below the surface for some time, but it wasn’t until the fall of 2017 that the issue of microplastics in drinking water hit headlines in a big way.

A non-profit group called Orb Media took samples of tap water from around the world, found microplastics in most of their samples, and released their results to the media. As a member of both the Drinking Water Research Group and the Institute for Water Innovation, Andrews knew that his collaborators would be curious about the story.

“Within hours, I got calls from a couple of the major water providers in southern Ontario that I work with, asking me what we were doing on this topic,” he says.

Despite his long experience collaborating with drinking water providers on treatment and technology, Andrews had not researched the issue of microplastics before. So he sought out advice from Rochman, who at first was similarly skeptical.

“I said, ‘I don’t think they’re going to be there, but sure, let’s filter some water and have a look,’” says Rochman. “We did, and they were there.”

Rochman and Andrews examine tiny plastic particles extracted from Toronto’s harbour. Even smaller particles — micrometres in size — have been found in drinking water from around the world. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

The traditional approach to dealing with drinking water contaminants, such as heavy metals or organic compounds, is for scientists to determine a target threshold below which the risk to human health is considered minimal. Drinking water authorities then invest in treatment technologies designed to keep the levels of these contaminants below the threshold.

But there is no existing threshold for microplastics, and developing one will be complex for several reasons.

First, plastic interacts differently with the body depending on how big the pieces are. “What we’ve seen in animals is that larger pieces usually just get excreted,” says Rochman. “But the smaller particles can actually leave the gut and go into tissues, which is when you can get inflammation and other problems.”

Another challenge is that there are no standardized methods for testing levels of microplastics in drinking water. Different teams employing different techniques could obtain different results, making it hard to compare scientific studies with one another.

Contamination is also an issue — tiny plastic particles shed from clothes, carpets and upholstery can get into the samples and skew the results.

These challenges are further compounded by the fact that microplastics can break down into even smaller particles, known as nanoplastics. Nanoplastics may behave differently from microplastics, but information is scarce because methods for detecting them are not merely non-standardized — they haven’t even been invented.

“Right now, we don’t have good techniques for handling nanoplastic particles,” says Andrews. “One strategy we’re considering is to concentrate them, burn them, and analyze the gas to determine what types of plastic are there. We’d then have to back-calculate to determine their initial concentrations.”

Andrews and his team also have experience testing the toxicity of various compounds on cells grown in the lab. While they may one day go down this route for nanoplastics, for now Andrews and Rochman emphasize the importance of improved analysis as a key step toward developing policies to address the challenge of microplastics.

“California has already passed laws mandating the monitoring of microplastics in drinking water and in the ambient environment,” she says. “I think it’s good that those bills happened, because they are now forcing this global methods development program, which we’re helping lead. We don’t want to throw out numbers until we feel that we have a sound method.”

The collaboration between Rochman and Andrews is funded in part by XSeed, an interdivisional research funding program designed to promote multidisciplinary research. XSeed projects include one principal investigator from U of T Engineering and one from another University of Toronto division, in this case, the Faculty of Arts & Science.

Learn more about the latest cohort of projects funded through XSeed

“Dealing with microplastics is the kind of challenge that truly does require people from different disciplines to work together,” says Andrews. “Neither of us could do this alone.”

 

By Tyler Irving

 

This article originally posted on U of T Engineering News 


Going with the flow: Alumna Jenny Hill aims to improve stormwater management in Toronto and beyond

Jenny Hill (CivE PhD 1T6) advises everyone from landscape architects, to professional civil engineers, to condominium developers, on how to put more water back into the ground and the air. (Photo credit: Yuestas David )

Jenny Hill (CivE PhD 1T6) advises everyone from landscape architects, to professional civil engineers, to condominium developers, on how to put more water back into the ground and the air. (Photo credit: Yuestas David )

Before Jenny Hill took on her current job — working to prevent catastrophic city-wide flooding in the Greater Toronto Area — she worked in a police forensics lab. She thinks her role now is more exciting.

“Forensics is not what people think,” she says. “None of us carry guns, we don’t do a dozen different tests to solve a crime. We have to do very routine tasks, which quickly becomes repetitive.”

In her spare time, Hill pursued a master’s degree in landscape architecture, and eventually moved to Toronto to work in the field. But she quickly discovered that her U.K. training wasn’t completely transferable, and began considering the related field of environmental engineering.

“I decided to reach out to a few professors at U of T, just to get a feel for what was going on,” she says. Soon, she found herself in the lab of Professor Jennifer Drake (CivMin), a leading expert in stormwater systems and management.

Urban stormwater is a critical issue for many large cities, including Toronto, which experienced catastrophic flash floods in both 2013 and 2018. Part of the challenge is that asphalt, concrete and rooftops are normally impervious to water. Heavily paved urban landscapes prevent rainwater from draining into the underlying soil — instead, the built environment channels it into low-lying areas, which quickly become overwhelmed.

Hill focused her research on designing infrastructure that could help absorb excess rain and release it at a more gradual pace. In particular, she looked at the performance of various types of green roofs using the Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab) at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.

Green roofs are often touted as a potential solution to urban flooding: a 2009 Toronto bylaw mandated the construction of green roofs on all new buildings. But according to Hill, the law omitted any performance-based specifications, limiting its effectiveness.

“It simply says that you have to have one,” she explains. “You know the turf grass you can roll out onto a lawn? You can purchase a similar product, roll it onto the roof membrane and call it a day, but that alone doesn’t have much absorbent capacity.”

A key finding of Hill’s research was how the composition of the soilless planting medium affects a green roof’s performance in adequately meeting the stormwater retention needs of the city. “The planting medium is a key component of a green roof, it influences the performance in relation to stormwater management, and the resiliency of the planting,” says Hill.

Today, Hill works as a research scientist at the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), which is mandated to ensure the conservation, restoration and responsible management of the region’s water, land and natural habitats. In this role, she advises everyone from landscape architects, to professional civil engineers, to condominium developers, on how to put more water back into the ground and the air.

Green roofs are only a small part of the strategy. Hill and TRCA promote feasible, sustainable solutions such as implementing underground stormwater crates and the planting of more tree pits.

They also advocate for floodable landscapes: areas such as the public parks that line ravines throughout the city of Toronto that are specifically designed to flood during heavy rain events. The idea is to contain waters in these recreational areas rather than allowing them to destroy homes and businesses. But Hill acknowledges that it can be a hard sell.

“The public are afraid of flooding, and rightly so,” she says. “They think you’re bringing the flooding to them, but that’s not the case. We can’t easily stop having excess stormwater in the city. We have to decide where to flood; do you want it in your park or in your basement?”

Hill is currently focusing her research on the practice and development of floodable landscapes  around the world — she cites the Netherlands as a useful model — with the aim of implementing more of them throughout Toronto.

Looming over all her work is the threat of climate change, which will likely increase the frequency and intensity of flooding events. Hill says that while floodable landscapes, green roofs, and other low-impact developments will make a positive difference in managing floods, they may not be enough on their own.

“I think that climate change is serious enough that we’re going to need all of these green infrastructure measures, and the pipes.” she says. “It’s not an ‘either or’ situation. We will need all of the engineering.”

By Liz Do


This story originally appeared on U of T Engineering News


Q & A with U of T Engineering’s newest professor: David Taylor

Assistant Professor David Taylor with a segment of pipe, related to his research on water distribution networks.

In January, the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering welcomed Assistant Professor David Taylor, a professor in Civil and Global Engineering, cross appointed with the Centre for Global Engineering (CGEN) in the Institute for Studies in Transdisciplinary Engineering Education & Practice (ISTEP).

Taylor’s research applies competencies from both civil and mechanical engineering. After completing his undergraduate degree in Engineering Science at U of T, Taylor continued his research at MIT, earning a Masters and Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering. Taylor’s key focus concerns understanding and improving intermittent water distribution systems in India.

What is the focus of your research?

How is it that 21 per cent of the world’s water pipes aren’t usually filled with water?

To save water and energy, some water distribution systems are regularly turned off; these water systems serve one billion people, yet are poorly understood. In India, for example, the average water distribution network operates for an average of only four hours a day; in Delhi, where I do much of my fieldwork, water is supplied two to three hours per day.

In cities with intermittent water systems, residents typically store water in their homes. Yet not all residents have the capacity to store a day’s worth of water. So, it’s critical to understand how the duration of water supplies affect residents. I look at this issue and how it relates to megacities in the global south, often in India.

Both the human right to water and one of the sustainable development goals are global commitments emphasizing that people need access to water. But how many hours per day, or days per week, does a water system need to be on for it to have fulfilled the human right to water? My research develops new models of and theories about intermittent water systems to help answer this type of question.

What excites you most about your research?

I think being very passionate about what you do is often a happy accident, but what excites me most about my research is the huge need for rigorous, thoughtful research into how these systems operate. Almost a billion people use intermittent water distribution networks on a daily basis, yet there might only be 15 researchers focused on how they work. In terms of research-to-impact ratios, there’s a high need for more people to think about how these systems work, how we should fix them, and how we should operate them. It’s exciting to be a part of a solution that has the potential to impact the lives of so many.

What are you most looking forward to in your new role at the University of Toronto?

I’m really looking forward to being in a cross-disciplinary role. Rather than having to take my global engineering research and mainstream it in civil engineering, or take my civil engineering research and consider it as global engineering, I get to do both, which makes me feel incredibly lucky. And I also get to work with colleagues who excel at both of those things, and students who want to do both of those things, too. I’m really excited about having colleagues in the department who focus on the traditional domains of water infrastructure and water treatment. With water distribution research, people ultimately care about the health impacts and the water quality, so it’s great to have colleagues focused on that.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next five years?

In five years, if I understood more about intermittent water supplies that would be a major accomplishment. The private sector and the consulting sphere both have some embedded interests in fixing these systems, but the status quo for how to fix these systems has not been fully evaluated, yet. I would love to gain some traction in getting some of these companies and consultants to think harder about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

In five years, I would love to have a way for water utilities to model their intermittent supplies. So for example, a city like Mumbai that has 15-20 million people, has a water system that turns on for maybe four hours a day and a team of a hundred engineers. None of the engineers have a computer program that can tell them how the system will respond if they change their pumping schedule, have a drought, or fix many of their leaks. These utilities are forced to manage their systems by trial and error. Yes, someone at the utility will have a program that tells them what the system should have done if it had been operated continuously, but I still think that having tools that accurately makes predictions about the current system’s behavior would be extremely useful.

What’s one thing about you that would surprise us?

I love windsurfing. I’m currently trying to land a forward loop – like a front flip. I used to windsurf on the Charles River in Boston, so I have yet to determine where I’ll practice in Toronto. I used to teach at Cherry Street Beach when I was in undergrad, so that’s always something to consider, but it doesn’t usually get windy enough for my liking.


#EveryDropMatters: Five ways U of T engineering research is enhancing water sustainability

Amy Bilton, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and graduate student Ahmed Mahmoud examine a model of a passive aerator for fish farms that they are designing (photo by Roberta Baker)
Posted on August 16, 2017 | Originally Appeared on U of T News by: Tyler Irving

 New exhibit brings water research and innovation to Canadian National Exhibition

 Fresh water, salt water, wastewater, industrial water, drinking water: all water on Earth is part of the same cycle – and every drop matters. Yet around the world, water supply and quality is under increasing pressure from growing populations, industrial development and climate change.

Researchers at U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering are leading the way in addressing these pressing global challenges. Professors and students are working together to use UV light to destroy chemical contaminants, develop low-cost solutions for sanitation and effectively control and mitigate pollution by studying and deploying ancient organisms.

During the 2017 Canadian National Exhibition, U of T engineering students will showcase the innovative and multidisciplinary solutions being developed in the faculty. At this interactive exhibit, CNE attendees can test their awareness of water consumption and conservation topics with a short quiz, share on social media and win a reusable water bottle.

Here are five ways that U of T engineering researchers are addressing pressing water challenges, across Canada and around the world:

Purifying drinking water


Zhjie Nie takes a sample at a Toronto-area drinking water treatment plant for her project on using activated carbon to remove contaminants (photo by Ron Hofmann)

From caffeine to birth control pills, most of the drugs we take pass through our bodies into wastewater and eventually into lakes and rivers. To keep our drinking water clean, we need new strategies to remove these pollutants.

In partnership with a number of municipalities, Robert Andrews, a professor of civil engineering, and Ron Hofmann, an associate professor of civil engineering, are testing a set of new approaches known as advanced oxidation. They blast water with everything from ultraviolet light to ozone, breaking down chemical compounds and leading to safer and cleaner drinking water.

Learn more about Andrews’ and Hofmann’s research

Restoring contaminated groundwater

photo of sleeping lab
Brent Sleep oversees the establishment of the Remediation Education Network, which researches new technologies to decontaminate soil and groundwater (photo by Roberta Baker)

Across North America, thousands of sites have been contaminated with industrial compounds. These contaminants can be degraded by bacteria, but the process is slow.

Brent Sleep, a professor of civil engineering, and his team are tackling the challenge through a project called Innovative Technologies for Groundwater Remediation (INTEGRATE). The INTEGRATE team is accelerating the process by pre-treating soil and inserting custom communities of more efficient bacteria that break down contaminants more quickly.

Elizabeth Edwards, a professor of chemical engineering, also pursues this approach and has developed a commercial product that is particularly good at degrading chlorinated compounds, formerly used in dry cleaning facilities: a community of microbes called KB-1. More recently, she’s developed a new microbial community that can degrade benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes – collectively known as BTEX – in soil and groundwater.

Learn more about Sleep’s research

Learn more about Edwards’ research

Sustainable sanitation


A team of U of T engineers has been hard at work building a better toilet for the 2.5 billion people who lack access to safe sanitation (photo by Centre for Global Engineering)

Worldwide, about 2.5 billion people – a third of the global population – have no access to safe sanitation. This lack of hygiene is linked to the spread of many preventable diseases, such as diarrheal diseases that kill more than 500,000 children under the age of five every year.

A team led by chemical engineering professor and director of the Centre for Global Engineering, Yu-Ling Cheng, is developing a waterless toilet that can disinfect human waste without connections to water, sewer or grid power. With a total cost of less than five U.S. cents per person per day, it is designed for users in the developing world.

Learn more about Cheng’s research

Designing for stormwater


Jennifer Drake and her students research ways to design our urban infrastructure to be resilient to storm surges, including this catchbasin shield that can capture sediments from stormwater runoff (photo by Pavneet Brar)

Buildings and roadways are designed to get rid of water as quickly as possible – but that can be a disaster during heavy rains, when it often leads to urban flooding.

Jennifer Drake, a professor of civil engineering, is using technologies such as water-permeable pavement to restore natural flow systems, which allow groundwater deposits to recharge more slowly and encourage river-like flows of runoff. She is also optimizing the design and cost-effectiveness of green roofs, which can reduce peak stormwater flows.

Learn more about Drake’s research

Rethinking resource extraction remediation

Lesley Warren (standing, at right) and her colleagues are mining the genomes of microbes that thrive in wastewater generated by the resource extraction industry (photo courtesy of Lesley Warren)

The mining and resource extraction industries generate millions of litres of contaminated wastewater annually, the chemistry of which is controlled by ancient microorganisms that breathe minerals in order to survive. An academic-industrial collaboration led by Lesley Warren, a professor of civil engineering and director of the Lassonde Institute of Mining, is studying the genomes of these organisms, gaining insight that could help both clean up contaminated water and prevent pollutants from forming in the first place.

Learn more about Warren’s research


Students win grand prize in the 2017 U.S. Department of Energy’s Race to Zero design competition

The team beat out over 50 submissions from four countries during this eight-month competition. The project focuses on building sciences, green energy initiatives and sustainable city development

Creating homes in the forgotten Toronto back laneways, LaneZero’s design offers stylish living driven by sustainable development.

Downtown location with loft-style, open-concept living featuring a bright kitchen, second-floor balcony and no energy bills for life.

This net-zero listing is a surprising addition to the rear garages and often neglected buildings dotting Toronto back alleys; but for a city facing a housing crunch this design contest winner might be the sustainable solution needed.

Recently Jason Gray (CivE MASc student) and U of T alum Kevin Wu Almanzar (CivE 1T6) teamed up with students from Ryerson to take home the grand prize in the 2017 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Race to Zero competition. Tackling green energy and building science challenges, the team addressed some unique problems plaguing Toronto with their market-ready design concept entitled, LaneZero.

LaneZero is a commercially viable design providing current homeowners the ability to transform pre-existing vehicle storage units to net-zero, single-family dwellings. Common garages are an untapped potential, which could transform our city.  With City Hall actively pursuing sustainable transportation alternatives, current forecasts suggest the need for garages will dramatically decrease.

Standing out from its competition, LaneZero responds to property owners’ needs today. The design offers a modern living space, affordable construction and great returns on initial investment given the net-zero mechanical performance.

“LaneZero shows that there is a viable option to help mitigate Toronto’s housing crisis. The fact that it can be competitively built while being net-zero, is in itself a large achievement. We expect LaneZero will encourage and help inform future Toronto by-law changes, which have been slow to develop and evolve,” Wu Almanzar notes.

Working within existing city landscape and infrastructure, the team used the laneways of Christie Pits as inspiration, and set out to identify a net-zero energy solution for the neighbourhood.

Prospective LaneZero sites are small and forced the team to revaluate traditional green building strategies. In typical low-energy homes, the necessary insulation needed in the building envelop to minimize thermal bridging requires walls up to three times larger than conventional building methods. The LaneZero design balanced the home’s footprint with wall thickness for optimal living through energy modelling and parametric analysis.

 

LaneZero’s winning architectural rendering of their market-ready Toronto laneway design.

“Our design serves to activate the laneways of Toronto and foster a community in spaces that were historically underused,” said Gray. “The laneway concept gives homeowners the opportunity to establish income properties on their existing lots and provides housing alternatives in the Toronto market. For those that don’t want to go the condo route – this is a great housing option.”

With 15 team members from a variety of fields like architecture, building science and mechanical engineering the students collaborated on every decision and development phase. From competing design needs requiring compromise to conflicting construction requirements, the team harnessed the complex, iterative process to spark ingenuity and innovation.

After weeks of comparisons and adjustments, the team obtained net-zero energy unlike other submissions who failed to meet the energy target. Using modelling software to determine an optimal design, the team considered the quantity of daylight penetration year-round, environmental impact and overall building costs.

Gray and Wu Almanzar spearheaded the envelope system design to minimize heat loss, protect the structure from damage, and help ensure year-round comfort. They worked alongside the architecture, mechanical, and indoor environmental quality teams to ensure comprehensive and fully integrated systems.

One creative and interesting consideration the team addressed was the limited roof space on laneway homes for solar panels. They employed passive solar and mechanical design concepts to take advantage of free energy and technological enhancements.

“For example, LaneZero leveraged the low-angle sun in the winter time with large south facing windows to maximize free heat gains while offsetting the heating demand. Appropriate shading for the summertime limited the amount of direct solar radiation entering the building and lowered the cooling demand,” explains Gray. “On the mechanical side, using an innovative heat pump design, the heating, cooling, and domestic hot water were all provided in a highly energy efficient manner. Other strategies, such as a large amount of insulation for the envelope assemblies, continuous thermal layers, and energy efficient appliance selection contributed to achieving the net-zero goal.”

The design lauded for its architectural finesse, comprehensive building science analysis and a unique vision for the future of sustainable cities, won in the Attached Housing category and the grand prize across all categories. The team is investigating future expansions and potential opportunities for project applications.


© 2021 Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering