Posts Tagged: Research

World Water Day 2021: Focus on CivMin’s water research

Monday, March 22 is World Water Day
- this year’s theme is 
Valuing Water. 

To celebrate, we’re highlighting the incredible research our
CivMin faculty and students are leading to preserve and value water. 

~

Prof. Jennifer Drake is a co-researcher at the Daniel’s Geen Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab). She’s currently working on connecting a greywater system that reuses storm water to irrigate the GRIT Lab's green roof, reducing the embedded energy and carbon.

Prof. Jennifer Drake

Please describe your area of research.

My group specializes in green infrastructure and works on urban drainage issues. While focus the three big technologies: permeable pavement, green roofs and bioretention system.

 

What projects are you currently working on?

We’re getting ready to try to connect a greywater system to the Daniel’s Geen Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab) to re-use stormwater for irrigation. This month we’ll be tracking the water quality in the cistern before connecting the system to our green roofs in May

Daniel’s Geen Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab).

What companies/organizations are you working with? (can we name them and/or tag?)

The John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, The Meadoway, TRCA, STEP_TRCA, Bioroof, Gro-Bark

 

Who is leading this research and how many are involved (breakdown of profs, students)?

The work is connected to the DesignLIFES’ CREATE Network. I am the lead investigator of this network which includes professors at UofT, UTSC, Ryerson University, Saint Mary’s University and University of Saskatchewan. The goal of DesignLIFES is to train the next generation of living and green infrastructure professionals.

 

What impact do these projects have on the larger scale?

Green roofs are a great technology but require irrigation to support plant growth. Most roofs are irrigated with drinking water! By re-using stormwater, we can significantly reduce the embedded energy and carbon associated with this technology.

The Meadoway in Scarborough is a is a world-class example of innovative and forward-thinking land management. By re-introducing meadow vegetation within the Hydro corridor important ecosystem services are restored. This includes flood control, reduced urban heat island effects, urban biodiversity and, most of all, multi-functional public green space.

To read more about Prof. Drake's work visit https://civmin.utoronto.ca/home/about-us/directory/professors/jennifer-drake/

 

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Drinking Water Research Group

The Drinking Water Research Group (Profs. Susan Andrews, Robert Andrews and Ron Hofmann) examines all aspects of drinking water. One area of research is in the removal of microplastics in drinking water as well as their occurrence in lakes and rivers.

From top left: Profs. Robert Andrews, Susan Andrews and Ron Hofmann

 Please describe your area(s) of research: 

  • Municipal drinking water treatment: Finding ways to address emerging contaminants and to protect the public, but more economically and effectively.
  • Examining treatment requirements to convert municipal wastewater directly into drinkable water. This is the wave of the future in many parts of the world. A lot of places are running out of water (e.g. Cape Town last year), so recycling the wastewater directly into drinking water is going to become more common. Technologically it’s feasible, it’s just very expensive, and we need to find the best and cheapest way to do it.
  • Investigating means to incorporate sustainable “green” technologies into drinking water treatment including the use of biological processes (biofiltration) in lieu of chemical addition.
  • Assessing the occurrence and removal of microplastics in drinking waters as well as their sources (lakes and rivers). A recent Toronto Star article reported, plastics in the environment are considered to be the greatest threat after global warming.
  • Optimizing treatment methods including the use of ultrafiltration membranes for some of the largest cities in Canada.

 

What projects are you currently working on?  

Prof. Ron Hofmann: A lot of small projects looking at how to best use current assets in Canadian drinking water treatment plants to be more effective and cheaper. Also, looking at how they might be able to address newly identified contaminants, such as PFAS or microplastics (this last one is Prof. Andrew’s work).

My own work focuses on activated carbon (the same stuff as the black charcoal in aquariums), and on using UV light to disinfect the water and to destroy chemicals. UV is relatively recent and is very cheap and effective. I have a small project on harnessing sunlight to drive photovoltaic-based UV water treatment for remote and resource-poor parts of the world.

Prof. Robert Andrews: I have major ongoing projects that examine the occurrence of microplastics in Canada as well as elsewhere in the world including Singapore. This work focuses on their removal during drinking water treatment as well as during water reuse (when converting municipal wastewater into drinking water)

Prof. Susan Andrews: My research interests are somewhat eclectic, but they generally include some aspect of the chemistry of drinking water treatment processes or distribution systems. For example, we are beginning some work on some small-scale water mains to see if we can improve the way that chlorine protects the treated water as it travels from the treatment plant to our taps.

What companies/organizations are you working with?

Many of the largest water providers in Ontario (Toronto, York, Peel, Durham, Peterborough, Barrie, London, Ontario Clean Water Agency)

 

Who is leading this research and how many are involved (breakdown of profs, students)? 

The three professors in the DWRG (Profs. Robert Andrews, Susan Andrews and Ron Hofmann) and approximately 30 personnel (Undergraduate students, Graduate students, Post-doctoral fellows, Research assistants).

 

What impact do these projects have on the larger scale? (In what way will engineering address the problems to make the world a better place?) 

Improving drinking water quality, learning more about emerging contaminants that we should address through new regulations.

 

To read more about the DWRG, please visit http://civmin.utoronto.ca/home/our-research/drinking-water-research-group/

 

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Ground & Surface Water

Prof. Elodie Passeport’s research explores the environmental remediation of contaminated surface and groundwater, primarily working on two types of green infrastructure: Constructed wetlands and bioretention cells. Her goal is to improve the reliability of green infrastructure.

Prof. Elodie Passeport

 

Please describe your area of research: 

My research focuses on environmental remediation of contaminated surface- and groundwater in urban, agricultural, and industrial settings. My approach is to characterize the transfer and transformation mechanisms that govern the fate and removal of contaminants in natural and engineered aquatic environments. Human activities use thousands of chemicals that reach stormwater, wastewater, and our freshwater aquatic resources. Some of these chemicals have known impacts on human and environmental health, but many are still to be discovered or are unregulated due to lack of knowledge about their toxicity.

The goal of my research is to improve the design and implementation of remediation measures. To this end, my research seeks to evaluate the efficiency of natural attenuation in contaminated groundwater and green infrastructure. I primarily work on two types of green infrastructure: constructed wetlands and bioretention cells. In support of this goal, my research group also develops new analytical methods based on stable isotopes.

Green infrastructure is a cost-effective and energy-efficient approach to water treatment but must become more reliable before it sees widespread adoption. While in principle wetlands and bioretention cells can eliminate a significant portion of contaminants, their present-day performance is highly variable. My objective is to improve the reliability of green infrastructure by advancing our understanding of their internal processes.

 

What projects are you currently working on? 

There are a few exciting projects in my group on two main topics: 1) Microplastic Research and 2) Stable Isotope Analysis.

  • Microplastic research

Microplastics are small plastic particles, in the 1-5000 µm range, that are widely distributed in the environment, and whose toxicological effects are mostly unknown. In collaboration with Prof. Chelsea Rochman (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) and Prof. Jennifer Drake, our PhD student Kelsey Smyth has conducted the first comprehensive study of microplastic fate in bioretention cells. This two-year long field work showed an 84% decrease in median microplastic concentration between the inlet and outlet of a bioretention cell. Her work showed that atmospheric deposition was a significant source of microplastics – especially microfibers – in urban stormwater, and urban stormwater was a significant pathway of microplastics to downstream aquatic ecosystems. Green stormwater infiltration systems like bioretention cells have great potential to limit this pollution.

Future research will evaluate if existing total suspended solids models can be used to characterize the fate and removal of microplastics in bioretention cells to better understand if accumulation in the cell is a significant issue.

Figure 1: graphical abstract from Smyth et al. 2021.

2) Compound Specific Isotope Analysis (CSIA)

Compound Specific Isotope Analysis (CSIA) is now an accepted diagnostic tool for identifying and quantifying the transformation of traditional contaminants, e.g., toluene and chlorobenzenes, in groundwater. My group is developing new analytical methods for stable isotope analysis of non-traditional contaminants (e.g., trace organic contaminants). We are also developing new applications of CSIA in less explored environments such as surface water.

Figure 2. CSIA to distinguish transfer and transformation mechanisms

Langping Wu, a postdoctoral fellow in my group is investigating the reaction mechanisms that govern the aqueous phototransformation of benzotriazole, a corrosion-inhibitor present in urban stormwater and wastewaters. Using stable carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen isotope analysis, we found a pH-dependence of benzotriazole direct photolysis which can be explained by a complex contribution of different reaction mechanisms. With PhD student Suchana Shamsunnahar, we have developed a novel method for CSIA of NO2- and NH2-substituded chlorobenzenes. These are common groundwater contaminants that raised significant concern for human and ecosystem health. We are working on a complex highly contaminated industrial site in Brazil with multiple academic and private partners and have proposed a novel method based on passive integrative samplers to conduct CSIA down to very low concentrations.

Altogether, these results demonstrate the potential to use CSIA as a diagnostic tool to monitor contamination and remediation in the field.

 

What companies/organizations are you working with?

Microplastics work: Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA)

CSIA: Geosyntec Consultants, Corteva Agriscience

 

What impact do these projects have on the larger scale? (In what way will engineering address the problems to make the world a better place?) 

Cleaning up water using passive remediation solutions (green infrastructure such as bioretention cells, constructed wetlands) and developing new diagnostic tools to monitor remediation.

 

To read more about Prof. Elodie Passeport’s work, visit https://www.labs.chem-eng.utoronto.ca/passeport/

 

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Warren Lab

Mining, Water and Environment

Prof. Lesley Warren's research examines the largely unexplored bacteria present in mine wastes and impacted waters to generate innovative new technologies that will enhance the environmental practices of the mining industry.

Prof. Lesley Warren, Director of the Lassonde Institute of Mining

What projects are you currently working on? 

The Mining Wastewater Solutions (MWS) Project is developing better tools for reactive sulfur compounds management. Funding for this project come from our mining partners and  Genome Canada and  Ontario Research Fund - Research Excellence (ORF-RE).

My group is also leading a project to constrain sulfur risks to oxygen levels in Syncrude Canada’s first pilot wet reclamation project, Base Mine Lake (BML). Funding for this project comes from Syncrude Canada and NSERC.

 

What companies/organizations are you working with? 

For the MWS project, we are working with Glencore Sudbury INO, Hudbay Minerals, Rambler Metals and Mining, Ecoreg Solutions and Ecometrix Consulting Companies.

For the BML project, we are working with Syncrude Canada and COSIA.

 

Who is leading this research and how many are involved(breakdown of profs, students)? 

I am the Principal Investigator on both projects (both international).

For the MWS project there are three professors from three institutions, three research scientists, one field researcher, 10 students, four post-doctoral fellows and two research assistants involved. 

For the BML project there are three professors from three institutions, one field researcher, 12 students and three post-doctoral fellow involved with the project.

Researchers collecting samples

What impact do these projects have on the larger scale? (In what way will engineering address the problems to make the world a better place?) 

Mining requires huge amounts of water to extract valuable commodities and generates massive amounts of wastewater that must be cleaned according to strict environmental standards before being discharged.  This wastewater also provides an ideal habitat for microbes, and studying these can help reduce wastewater treatment costs and the environmental footprint of the mining industry.

My research focuses on identifying the microbes that occur in these contexts and how they drive changes in water quality or waste stability. These new discoveries  are leading to new models and tools that tackle the underlying root causes of potential risks to the environment.

 

To read more about Prof. Lesley Warren's work, visit https://warrenlab.civmin.utoronto.ca/ 


Toronto’s COVID-19 bike lane expansion boosted access to jobs, retail: U of T study

A study by U of T Engineering researchers found Toronto’s temporary cycling infrastructure increased low-stress road access to jobs and food stores by between 10 and 20 per cent, and access to parks by 6.3 per cent (photo by Dylan Passmore)

With COVID-19 making it vital for people to keep their distance from one another, the city of Toronto undertook the largest one-year expansion of its cycling network in 2020, adding about 25 kilometres of temporary bikeways.

Yet, the benefits of helping people get around on two wheels go far beyond facilitating physical distancing, according to a recent study by three University of Toronto researchers that was published in the journal Transport Findings.

Bo Lin, Shoshanna Saxe, and Timothy Chan.

PhD candidate Bo Lin (MIE) with Professors Shoshanna Saxe (CivMin), and Timothy Chan (MIE), all of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, used census, city and survey data to map Toronto’s entire cycling network – including the new routes – and found that additional bike infrastructure increased low-stress road access to jobs and food stores by between 10 and 20 per cent, while boosting access to parks by an average of 6.3 per cent.

“What surprised me the most was how big an impact we found from what was just built last summer,” says Saxe, an assistant professor in the department of civil and mineral engineering.

“We found sometimes increases in access to 100,000 jobs or a 20 per cent increase. That’s massive.”

The impact of bikeways added during COVID-19 were greatest in areas of the city where the new lanes were grafted onto an existing cycling network near a large concentration of stores and jobs, such as the downtown core. Although there were new routes installed to the north and east of the city, “these areas remain early on the S-Curve of accessibility given the limited links with pre-existing cycling infrastructure,” the study says.

In these areas, the new infrastructure can be the beginning of a future network as each new lane multiplies the impact of ones already built, Saxe says.

As for the study’s findings about increasing access to jobs, Saxe says they are not only a measure of access to employment but also a proxy for places you would want to travel to: restaurants, movie theatres, music venues and so on.

A map of Toronto’s bikeway network with colours representing the route’s level of stress (image courtesy of Bo Lin)

The researchers used information from Open Data Toronto and the Transportation Tomorrow 2016 survey, among other sources. Where there were discrepancies, Lin, a PhD student and the study’s lead author, gathered the data himself by navigating the city’s streets (as a bonus, it helped him get to know Toronto after moving here from Waterloo, Ont.).

“There were some days I did nothing but go around the city using Google Maps,” he says.

For Lin, the research has opened up new avenues of investigation into cycling networks, including how bottlenecks can have a ripple effect through the system.

The study, like some of Saxe’s past work on cycling routes, makes a distinction between low- and high-stress bikeways to get a more accurate reading of how they affect access to opportunities. At the lowest end of the scale are roads where a child could cycle safely; on the other end are busy thoroughfares for “strong and fearless cyclists” – Avenue Road north of Bloor Street, for example.

“It’s legal to cycle on most roads, but too many roads feel very uncomfortable to bike on,” Saxe says.

For Saxe, the impact of the new cycling routes shows how a little bike infrastructure can go a long way.

“Think about how long it would have taken us to build 20 kilometres of a metro project – and we need to do these big, long projects – but we also have to do short-term, fast, effective things.”

Chan, a professor of industrial engineering in the department of mechanical and industrial engineering, says the tools they used to measure the impact of the new bikeways in Toronto will be useful in evaluating future expansions of the network, as well as those found in other cities.

“You hear lots of debates about bike lanes that are based on anecdotal evidence,” he says. “But here we have a quantitative framework that we can use to rigorously evaluate and compare different cycling infrastructure projects.

“What gets me excited is that, using these tools, we can generate insights that can influence decision-making.”

The U of T team’s research, which was supported by funding from the City of Toronto, may come in handy sooner rather than later. Toronto’s city council is slated to review the COVID-19 cycling infrastructure this year.

ByGeoffrey Vendeville

 

This story originally published by U of T News


Half a world away, but heading home for the holidays

Prof. Oh-Sung Kwon displays his certificate for completing the Seoul Trail in Seoul, South Korea October 2020. (Photo courtesy Prof. Oh-Sung Kwon)

Prof. Oh-Sung Kwon is coming home to Toronto this week, on Saturday, December 19, after a six-month research leave. “It has been a long six months,” shares Kwon. “I look forward to seeing my family in December and meeting my students in person after the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The research leave was planned long before the current health crisis was known – it just added a few more twists. Like any other CivMin professors, he has been keeping in touch with the structural research students he supervises via video meetings. Teams chats are the new norm for just about everyone during the pandemic since in-person contact is strictly limited to lab work at U of T. The difference, however, is he’s nearly half a world away in Seoul, South Korea.

“Even though I spent six months in Korea, there has not been much difference in having meetings with my students. The only difference is the meeting time; it is either early in the morning or late in the evening due to the 14 hours of time difference.”

Since departing Toronto on June 19 for Seoul, Kwon has maintained regular contact with research students at both U of T and Seoul National University (SNU). He has spent his research leave in Korea to progress a few collaborative research projects there.

“Back in 2016, I hosted an international workshop at the University of Toronto, inviting researchers and professors from several research institutions in South Korea to promote international collaborations. Since then, we have developed a few research projects. Including myself, five professors in the Structures section have collaborated with or closely interacted with Korean researchers. In the past four years, three PhD students visited my group from Seoul National University. My graduate students spent 26 person-months at the Korea Institute of Civil Engineering and Building Technology (KICT) and Korea Atomic Energy Research Institue (KAERI). I recruited one PDF from SNU, with another one joining in January 2021.”

One of Kwon’s primary research focuses is on developing realistic simulation methods for structures subjected to extreme loads such as earthquake, wind, and fire. Through the research collaborations of the institutions, his group can access unique testing facilities, such as a wind tunnel and fire testing facilities, not available at U of T.

He says, “During my stay, I have been co-supervising one graduate student and one PDF at SNU to implement the real-time aeroelastic hybrid simulation (RTAHS) method for bridge deck models in their wind tunnel facility. I co-supervised one Ph.D. student in the past four years on the development of deep neural network (DNN) models for nonlinear response predictions. The student will complete his doctoral degree soon. Also, during my stay in Korea, I have been developing a new project with KICT to run more conventional fire endurance tests and hybrid fire tests at their fire testing facility in 2021.”

Prof. Oh-Sung Kwon (L) with the student and the PDF who are working on RTAHS of a bridge deck section model. Real-time aeroelastic hybrid simulation testing setup for a bridge deck section model at SNU. It is replicated from the design that Prof. Kwon’s group developed at U of T (Photo courtesy Prof. Oh-Sung Kwon)

Prof. Oh-Sung Kwon takes in the view on the Seoul Trail. (Photo courtesy Oh-Sung Kwon)

For personal recreation, as well as beneficial exercise, he has stayed active with regular hikes around Seoul on the well-known Seoul Trail. The 157 km trail winds up and down hilly terrain, providing a varied and sometimes challenging Saturday trek. Kwon began his ambitious sojourns in July and completed the final section October 31. Recognition, in the form of a certificate, allowed him to realize a lifelong goal.

A map of the Seoul Trail’s circuitous route around the city with Prof. Oh-Sung Kwon’s hike segments.

A planned break to see his family simply was not to be, as quarantine measures in both countries were found to be too restrictive. “Originally I was planning to go back to Toronto for two weeks in late September to spend Thanksgiving with my family. But I realized the two weeks of isolation upon return to South Korea were very strict. And, also, two weeks of quarantine in Toronto is also restrictive. In total I would need to spend one month in isolation if I travelled back and forth, so I decided to stay here and just leave at the end of my recess.”

Throughout the summer, and early fall, South Korea held COVID-19 at bay with extremely low case counts. Kwon recounts the open access to facilities, such as libraries, while everyone kept to wearing masks as a matter of course. “I think Korea flattened and reduced to the curve very quickly. I think a great example of taking control and I think there’s also in the country more of a personal feeling of responsibility, or obligation.”

The number of cases in all of South Korea, with a population of 52 million, is currently starkly better than even the lone province of Ontario (pop. 16 million) or the City of Toronto’s three million. “We see the third wave of COVID-19 situation in Korea with 451 new cases for today [November 30]. There are further restrictions imposed to a few businesses (bars, cafes, gyms, restaurants, etc.), but not as strict as in Toronto. For example, all restaurants are still open until 9 p.m.,” he says.

The relatively better situation is met with caution,”With greater population density, it can spread a lot quicker here, so we all have to be more careful.”

Kwon returns home to his wife and three children in Toronto, though he has enjoyed his time visiting extended family while back in South Korea, “I have a big family in Seoul. If we get together with my three sisters and their family, we have about 18-19 family members.”

During his time away from home there have been several notable academic recognitions:

Kwon reflects on his six-month research leave as an excellent opportunity for him to wrap up a few projects and develop a few more for the next few years.

By Phill Snel


CivMin study: Electric vehicles can fight climate change, but they’re not a silver bullet

Sales of passenger electric vehicles are growing fast, but a new analysis from U of T Engineering researchers shows that on its own, electrifying the U.S. fleet will not be enough to meet our climate change mitigation targets. (Photo: microgen, via Envato)

Today there are more than 7 million electric vehicles (EVs) in operation around the world, compared with only about 20,000 a decade ago. It’s a massive change — but according to a group of U of T Engineering researchers, it won’t be nearly enough to address the global climate crisis. 

“A lot of people think that a large-scale shift to EVs will mostly solve our climate problems in the passenger vehicle sector” says Alexandre Milovanoff, lead author of a new paper published today in Nature Climate Change. 

“I think a better way to look at it is this: EVs are necessary, but on their own, they are not sufficient.” 

Around the world, many governments are already going all-in on EVs. In Norway, for example, where EVs already account for half of new vehicle sales, the government has said it plans to eliminate sales of new internal combustion vehicles altogether by 2025. The Netherlands aims to follow suit by 2030, with France and Canada to follow by 2040. Just last week, California announced plans to ban sales of new internal combustion vehicles by 2035.

Milovanoff and his supervisors, Professors Daniel Posen and Heather MacLean (both CivMin) are experts in life cycle assessment — modelling the impacts of technological changes across a range of environmental factors. 

They decided to run a detailed analysis of what a large-scale shift to EVs would mean in terms of emissions and related impacts. As a test market, they chose the United States, which is second only to China in terms of passenger vehicle sales. 

“We picked the U.S. because they have large, heavy vehicles, as well as high vehicle ownership per capita and high rate of travel per capita,” says Milovanoff. “There is also lots of high-quality data available, so we felt it would give us the clearest answers.” 

The team built computer models to estimate how many electric vehicles would be needed to keep the increase in global average temperatures to less than 2 C above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100, a target often cited by climate researchers. 

“We came up with a novel method to convert this target into a carbon budget for U.S. passenger vehicles, and then determined how many EVs would be needed to stay within that budget,” says Posen. “It turns out to be a lot.” 

Based on the scenarios modelled by the team, the U.S. would need to have about 350 million EVs on the road by 2050 in order to meet the target emissions reductions. That works out to about 90% of the total vehicles estimated to be in operation at that time. 

“To put that in perspective, right now the total proportion of EVs on the road in the U.S. is about 0.3%,” says Milovanoff. 

“It’s true that sales are growing fast, but even the most optimistic projections suggest that by 2050, the U.S. fleet will only be at about 50% EVs.” 

The team says that in addition to the barriers of consumer preferences for EV deployment, there are technological barriers such as the strain that these vehicles would place on the country’s electricity infrastructure. 

According to the paper, a fleet of 350 million EVs would increase annual electricity demand by 1,730 TWh, or about 41% of current levels. This would require massive investment in infrastructure and new power plants, some of which would almost certainly run on fossil fuels. 

The shift could also impact what’s known as the demand curve — the way that demand for electricity rises and falls at different times of day — which would make managing the national electrical grid more complex. Finally, there are technical challenges to do with the supply of critical materials, such as lithium, cobalt and manganese for batteries. 

The team concludes that getting to 90% EV ownership by 2050 is an unrealistic scenario. Instead, what they recommend is a mix of policies, including many designed to shift people out of personal passenger vehicles in favour of other modes of transportation. 

These could include massive investment in public transit — subways, commuter trains, buses — as well as the redesign of cities to allow for more trips to be taken via active modes, such as bicycles or on foot. They could also include strategies such as telecommuting, a shift already spotlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“EVs really do reduce emissions, but they don’t get us out of having to do the things we already know we need to do,” says MacLean. “We need to rethink our behaviours, the design of our cities, and even aspects of our culture. Everybody has to take responsibility for this.” 

By Tyler Irving

 

This story originally published in Engineering News


Hart professorships boost research into medical diagnostics, smart cities and more

Seven new Hart Professorships will boost U of T Engineering research into technologies across a range of fields, from improved medical testing to more efficient transportation networks.

Created in 2016 by a landmark bequest from the estate of alumnus Erwin Edward Hart (CivE 4T0), the Percy Edward Hart and Erwin Edward Hart professorships are awarded to faculty members who are within the first 10 years of their careers. They provide increased research funding for a period of three years. Today’s announcement recognizes the second cohort to receive these awards.

“Each of these seven professors has demonstrated a high level of research excellence and exemplary graduate student mentorship,” said Christopher Yip, Dean, U of T Engineering. “These awards will accelerate their work and lead to innovations that can address some of the toughest challenges we face, from supplying safe water, to fighting cancer.”

Khandker Nurul Habib (CivMin), Percy Edward Hart Professor in Civil and Mineral Engineering
Planning and optimizing transportation in the age of self-driving cars

Khandker Nurul Habib (CivMin), Percy Edward Hart Professor in Civil and Mineral Engineering, studies the impact that autonomous vehicles will have on urban transportation systems. (Photo: Roberta Baker)

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are poised to have a powerful impact on urban transportation. Yet our infrastructure — roads, rails, subways, parking lots — was designed and built well before the rise of AVs. Better design could enhance the benefits of AVs, while minimizing the risks.

Nurul Habib and his team are addressing this challenge. They are leveraging digital tools to gain a better picture of how people and goods move in our cities, and building new models to predict how our transportation behaviour will change as AVs become more widespread. Their ultimate goal is a decision-support tool that will help city planners make smarter decisions around transportation.

Oya Mercan (CivMin), Erwin Edward Hart Professor in Civil and Mineral Engineering
Better testing for safer construction

Professor Oya Mercan combines computer models and experiments to study how building components stand up to high winds, earthquakes and other stressors. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

A changing climate will bring more extreme weather events, including high winds. In order to understand the effects of these events on man-made structures, Mercan and her team combine computer models and large-scale dynamic experiments in a method known as real-time hybrid simulation, or RTHS.

RTHS models can compare the effectiveness of traditional construction methods with new and emerging methods, such as modular construction. In addition to high winds, it can also assess resilience to other natural disasters, such as earthquakes. Going forward, these tools will help civil engineers and architects proactively mitigate climate change and other challenges through good design, resulting in better, safer buildings.

David Taylor (CivMin, ISTEP), Erwin Edward Hart Professor in Global Engineering
Enhancing global water supplies

David Taylor analyzes so-called “intermittent” water supply systems with the goal of improving equitable access to safe water to everyone around the world. (Photo: Roberta Baker)

The United Nations has declared access to safe water a human right. But for more than a billion people around the world, running water comes from “intermittent systems” that are only turned on some of the time. Before joining the Centre for Global Engineering, Taylor worked in places such as India to understand and model these systems, including how changes to them will impact factors such as operation costs and customer satisfaction.

Going forward, he plans to further validate and refine his models using sensors that measure pressure or acoustic responses in the pipes. His insights will inform strategies for operating intermittent systems in more efficient and equitable ways, as well as lower the costs of converting intermittent systems to continuous ones. Ultimately, the research will enable more people to access safe water.

Other U of T Engineering Professors who received Hart Professorships

Ben Hatton (MSE), Percy Edward Hart Professor in Materials Science and Engineering
Engineering safer surfaces

Professor Ben Hatton. (Photo: Mark Neil Balson)

Hatton and his team study and design surfaces at the micro- and nanometre scale, and will use part of the award to study how bacteria exploit tiny crevices to hide from disinfectant products. The work has important implications for the fight against hospital-acquired infections, which affect hundreds of millions of patients each year.

Other projects include research into how certain plant leaves and insect exoskeletons have evolved to repel parasites, and a study that uses a ‘switchable adhesion’ material created by Hatton to enhance robotic gripping and assistive devices

Xinyu Liu (MIE), Percy Edward Hart Professor in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering
Microfluidic nanobiosensors for improved disease diagnosis

Professor Xinyu Liu (MIE), Percy Edward Hart Professor in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, developed nanobiosensors that can be used in microfluidic devices to diagnose diseases quickly and efficiently. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Liu and his team are exploring the potential of nanomaterials to enhance a class of medical devices known as point-of-care (POC) diagnostic biosensors. These low-cost tests take samples from a patient —  such as a drop of blood — and run fast, reliable analyses for biomarkers associated with various diseases, without the need for complex and costly laboratory equipment.

One material, known as nanofibrillated cellulose, is created from wood and can be made into transparent paper that contains hollow channels. These channels can hold tiny samples in a way that makes them easy to analyze. Another material, molybdenum disulfide, provides a bio-electronic interface that can detect very small amounts of specific proteins, greatly increasing the sensitivity of diagnostics. The research has applications in the detection of prostate cancer, brain injuries and other disorders.

 

Josh Taylor (ECE), Percy Edward Hart Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering
Optimizing power networks

Professor Josh Taylor studies how to combine the best of AC and DC power lines for a grid that is safe, reliable and efficient. (Photo: Caitlin Free Photography)

Most of the power lines that supply electricity to cities and towns operate using alternating current (AC). But some direct current (DC) lines also exist, and they can have their advantages: for example, the 2003 Northeastern Blackout largely missed Quebec because most of its interconnections are DC lines. Over the past 10 years, the total installed capacity of DC lines worldwide has doubled.

Taylor and his team will optimize power networks that contain both AC and DC lines. Using analytical and computational tools from control theory and optimization, they can predict how the addition of new lines or the replacement of old ones would impact factors such as capital cost, operating costs and stability. The research aims to guide the creation of power grids that combine the best of both worlds to provide safe, reliable and efficient electricity.

Lidan You (MIE), Erwin Edward Hart Professor in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering
A mechanical approach to fighting cancer

Lidan You and her team design microfluidic devices for earlier diagnosis of diseases such as cancer. (Photo: Liz Do)

You and her team leverage their expertise in mechanical engineering to develop new ways of detecting and combating cancer. One example is the creation of microfluidic devices that can perform analytical chemistry tests that are less costly and more sensitive than current approaches. They are currently developing a microfluidic chip that can detect very low levels of clonal circulating plasma cells, which are considered a biomarker for aggressive forms of multiple myeloma.

Another example is the use of physical exercise and its alternatives to improve treatment. In breast cancer, exercise is known to have both psychological and physical benefits, including reduced risk of metastasis. However, some patients experience significant barriers to regular exercise. You is researching the use of high-frequency mechanical signals to create whole-body vibration, and assessing its potential as a supplement to traditional exercise.

By Tyler Irving


Originally published on U of T 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


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 


Big builders thinking small: Conference examines microscopic details of building materials

A group photo of attendees at the 17th Euroseminar on Microscopy Applied to Building Materials held at the University of Toronto May 20-23, 2019.
PHOTO BY PHILL SNEL/ UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO – DEPT OF CIVIL & MINERAL ENGINEERING

By Phill Snel

We know civil engineers are involved in building tall buildings, long bridges and large stadiums, but just how much detail do civil engineers delve into? Surprisingly, they’re examining building materials down to the microscopic level. Sharing research and discoveries is big part of this small world (pun intended) within the engineering community.

For the first time in its history this biennial conference, known for being rooted in Europe, was held in North America. Organized by U of T’s Professor Karl Peterson, Associate Professor in the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering, the 17th Euroseminar on Microscopy Applied to Building Materials held events May 20-23 in Toronto.

“Everyone does research and makes discoveries or observations, but in isolation at their own institution or company,” explained Peterson. “When we gather here, it’s a chance to share information and ideas, as well as prod some into exploring new avenues of research for building materials like concrete and cement. We’re always trying to think of new ways to make the materials, and the structures it supports, better and better. It’s a great incubator for even those who have been involved in civil engineering for a long time.”

Welcoming remarks were given by organizers U of T Professors Karl Peterson (CivMin), Daman Panesar (CivMin) and Doug Hooton (CivMin), as well as Chris Rogers, who taught Geology for engineers at U of T and Ryerson University, to launch the event. Overall, the audience was gathered to learn from each other in order to build better structures.

Rogers, by way of introduction to the overall downtown, opened with a description of his practical walking tour of the St. George campus to observe the various stones used in campus buildings. He found it to be an elegant solution to the complications and logistics of taking first-year students on a field trip. “I couldn’t just load up over 100 students on a bus trip,” Rogers said. “This was far easier.”

Keynote speaker Alex Brand, Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech College of Engineering.
PHOTO: PHILL SNEL / UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, CIVIL &; MINERAL ENGINEERING

Keynote speaker Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s Assistant Professor Alexander Brand opened with a talk on the in situ dissolution kinetics of cementitious minerals by digital holographic microscopy.

With some 42 speakers and sponsors focusing on cross-sections of highly-polished concrete and cement, many presentation slides might appear as abstract art to the untrained eye. The keen eyes observing, however, could readily discern materials displayed and techniques used for study.

“I’ve been attending [this conference] since the very first one, though we didn’t call it the Euroseminar then,” said speaker Peter Laugensen of sponsor Pelcon Materials & Testing ApS from Denmark. “I first met the young man, Karl [Peterson], in 1997 when it was held in Iceland.”

Some diversions from the main lecture theatre allowed the conference a few off-site visits. A reception at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), including a special display of minerals important to the cement and concrete industries by Mineralogy & Geology Technician Katherine Dunnell, as well a dinner at the ornate Hart House Gallery Grill were part of the featured events.

A guided tour the Canada Building Materials Portlands Ready-Mix Concrete Plant.
PHOTO: PHILL SNEL / UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, CIVIL & MINERAL ENGINEERING

A field trip was a highlight of the conference. Adorned with high visibility safety vests, hard hats and safety glasses, with steel-toed caps later provided, a busload of enthusiastic engineering professionals embarked on a tour of Toronto’s Portlands. A first stop presented a guided tour the Canada Building Materials Portlands Ready-Mix Concrete Plant.

Afterwards the group travelled to the Leslie Street Spit, part of Tommy Thompson Park (TTP), for a picnic lunch and tours of several beaches as well as bird nesting grounds. Used as a site for dumping solid construction debris such as concrete, brick and other stones, its shores have unique and challenging landscapes for pedestrians.

The land on which TTP lies is completely man-made. Millions of cubic metres of concrete, earth fill and dredged sand have been placed to create the site now extending five kilometres into Lake Ontario. The park is home to many migratory nesting birds and has some protected zones blocked off from visitors.

Attendees examine dumped construction debris along the beach at Tommy Thompson Park on the Leslie Spit.
PHOTO BY PHILL SNEL/ UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO – DEPARTMENT OF CIVIL & MINERAL ENGINEERING

Peterson made a point of escorting the tour to a cormorant nesting area, which he referred to as “Noisy and smelly, but you’ve got to see it… and hear it.”

The gathering of 74 attendees included a predominantly North American crowd, but also drew 21 from Europe and the U.K., and four from Asia.

In conclusion to the conference, Hooton expressed his appreciation to Peterson. ”Congratulations on organizing and running an excellent international conference on Campus. The technical sessions, tours, and social events were well organized and well executed. The Canadian and International attendees were all pleased,” he said.

But why was this Euroseminar hosted in Toronto of all places?

Peterson, who has attended several previous Euroseminars, offered an invitation to expand the geographical location at a previous conference at the 2015 15th Euroseminar held in Delft, Netherlands, “The Euroseminar doesn’t have to be held just in Europe,” speaking as a pitch to hold the next gathering in Toronto. “After all, the precedent has been set with the 1995 event in Iceland. It’s on the west side of the Mid-Atlantic Rift, so part of the North American continental plate, so there’s already been a conference held on North America soil.” To his great surprise, the argument was successful and Toronto awarded the site of the 17th Euroseminar for 2019. “I guess they appreciated that logic,” recounted Peterson.

Announced at the closing formal event, the 18th Euroseminar on Microscopy Applied to Building Materials will be held in Lille, France, and organized by Vincent Thiéry of IMT Lille Douai. It is expected to be held in June 2021. The 19th will be held in Kassel Germany in 2023, hosted by Alexander Wetzel, Johannes Arend, and Bernhard Middendorf.

As an added diversion, a photo contest was held to include a display of images from several contributors, with attendees asked to vote on their favourite. Winners were announced via an online posting.
PHOTO: PHILL SNEL / UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, CIVIL & MINERAL ENGINEERING


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