Posts Tagged: sustainability

How re-thinking traditional building materials can lead to new strategies for carbon capture and utilization

Samples of concrete curing in a carbonation chamber in the lab of Professor Daman Panesar (CivMin). A new collaboration between her team and the Canada Green Building Council will investigate new ways to sequester carbon in building materials. (Photo: Dr. Runxiao Zhang)

One of the most powerful tools for mitigating the impact of climate change could be a material that is so common we tend not to think about it very much — concrete.

Daman Panesar (CivE) has been named the Erwin Edward Hart Professor in Civil Engineering. Her research focuses on new ways to improve the performance of concrete structures, from bridges to buildings. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Prof. Daman Panesar. (Photo by Tyler Irving)

Burying Carbon in Buildings: Advancing Carbon Capture and Utilization in Cementitious Building Materials is a new collaboration between a team of researchers led by Professor Daman Panesar (CivMin) and the Canada Green Building Council. It is funded by a recently-announced $1.7 million contribution by the Government of Canada.

Concrete is the world’s most widely used building material, and it can impact carbon emissions both as a burden and also a benefit. Firstly, the production of cement — one of the key components of concrete — produces relatively large amounts of carbon emissions, so mitigating these could make a big difference. But over its lifetime, concrete also has the ability to uptake carbon from the air.

“Currently, several low-carbon concrete framework documents have been produced worldwide and most of these roadmaps have set 2050 carbon reduction targets related to several levers, such as clinker-cement ratio, alternative fuel use, and carbon capture, storage and sequestration,” says Panesar.

While there has been preliminary work on several carbon utilization approaches, few have been implemented on a large scale. Panesar and her team will examine the challenges associated with scale-up of these strategies, and explore new technologies that can effectively turn built infrastructure into a carbon sink.

“Natural carbonation of concrete occurs by a chemical reaction between the constituents of concrete, particularly cement, and atmospheric carbon dioxide and it has the potential to occur throughout the life of the concrete,” says Panesar.

“However, accelerated or enforced carbonation approaches are relatively new technologies, which can also be referred to as carbon capture and utilization technologies, and can be introduced at different life stages, such as during manufacture or at end-of-life.”

Some examples of carbonation processes that will be explored and assessed include: CO2 injection, elevated CO2 exposure, mineral carbonation using recycled or waste CO2, industry by-products used to replace cement and subsequent CO2 curing, as well as the potential for synthetic treated aggregates.

“All of these techniques need further understanding of the implications and potential for negative emission technologies such as carbon capture utilization approaches,” says Panesar.

Another challenge for both new and existing structures is that any change to the formulations of concrete — for example, using lower-carbon components or absorbing more CO2 during curing — cannot come at the expense of its required structural and material design properties, such as strength and durability.

“For example, considering natural carbonation processes, the mechanism related to the potential for increased vulnerability of reinforced concrete elements to steel corrosion, concrete degradation and shortened service lives is fairly well understood.” says Panesar.

“For existing infrastructure, the situation becomes more complex because there is a need to account for and interpret the role of age-related cracking on the CO2 uptake of concrete, as well as in conjunction with other predominant degradation issues in Canada, such as freeze-thaw cycles.”

Finally, researchers will need to come up with benchmarks and other standardized tools to accurately account for the carbon uptake in building materials.

“Currently, there is no harmonized measure of concrete carbonation, and the differences in measurements and reporting add an extra dimension of complexity when trying to compare between different concrete formulations and/or CO2 uptake technologies,” says Panesar.

“Carbon accounting is critical to enable us to determine the relative environmental impacts of the various approaches and to be able to estimate or forecast the impacts of deploying these new technologies in the coming decades.”

One of the strengths of the new collaboration is that it provides a built-in pathway for new research findings to get translated into industry, as well as into new policies and regulations.

“As the national organization representing members and stakeholders across the green building spectrum, CAGBC can access industry expertise to help advance research and mobilize the sector to implement market solutions,” says Thomas Mueller, President and CEO of the Canada Green Building Council.

“We are proud to partner with the University of Toronto on a project that has the potential to significantly reduce embodied carbon emissions from the cement industry. The results will contribute to the collective effort to decarbonize construction.”

By Tyler Iriving

This story originally published by Engineering News

U of T Engineering researchers use machine learning to enhance environmental monitoring of microplastics

Graduate research assistant Weiwu Chen (CivMin) counts microplastics using a microscope in the lab of Professor Elodie Passeport (CivMin, ChemE). (Photo: Shuyao Tan)


Microplastics exist all around us — in the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe. But before researchers can understand the real impact of these particles, they need faster and more effective ways to quantify what is there.  

Two recent U of T Engineering studies have proposed new methods that use machine learning to make the process of counting and classifying microplastics easier, faster and more affordable.  

Prof. Elodie Passeport

“It’s really time consuming to analyze a water sample for microplastics,” says Professor Elodie Passeport (CivMin, ChemE).

“It can take up to 40 hours to fully analyze a sample the size of a mason jar — and that specimen is from one point in time. It becomes especially difficult when you want to make comparisons over time or observe samples from different bodies of water.” 

This past March, the United Nations Environment Programme endorsed a historic resolution to end plastic pollution, which it called “a catastrophe in the making,” due to the threat the production and pollution poses to human health, marine and costal species, and global ecosystems. 

The synthetic material can take hundreds to thousands of years to biodegrade. But it is not just visible plastic refuse that is an issue: over time plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller particles. Those pieces that are less than five millimetres in size but greater than 0.1 micrometres are defined as microplastics.   

Researchers who study the effects of microplastics are still trying to understand how these tiny pieces could affect human and environmental health in ways that are different from the bulk material. 

A stormwater sample, left, is juxtaposed with the plastic particles manually picked out of the sample, right. (Photo: Kelsey Smyth)

Though past studies have demonstrated the presence of microplastics in various environments, the standards for how to quantify their levels — and critically, how to compare different samples over time and space — are still emerging. Passeport worked with PhD student Shuyao Tan (ChemE) and Professor Joshua Taylor (ECE) to address the challenge of analysis.  

“We asked ourselves whether there could be a crude measurement that could predict the concentration of microplastics,” says Passeport. 

“In collaboration with Professor Taylor, who has expertise in machine learning and optimization, we established a prediction model that employs a trained algorithm that can estimate microplastic counts from aggregate mass measurements.”  

 “Our method has guaranteed error tracking properties with similar results to manual counting, but it’s less costly and faster, allowing for the analysis of multiple samples from multiple points to estimate microplastic pollution.”  

The team’s investigation, published earlier this year in ACS ES&T Water, has the advantage of allowing researchers to manually process only a fraction of their collected samples and predict the quantity of the rest using an algorithm, without introducing any more error or variance.  

“Researchers working on microplastic analysis need to know how many plastic particles there are, the kinds of particles, the polymers and shapes,” says Tan. 

With this information, they can then study the effects of microplastic pollution on living organisms — as well as where this pollution is coming from, so they can deal with it at the source.” 

Classical quantification methods using visible light microscopy require the use of tweezers to count samples one-by-one under an optical microscope — a labour-intensive endeavour that is prone to human error. 

In an investigation published in Science of The Total Environment, PhD candidate Bin Shi (MSE), who is supervised by Professor Jane Howe (MSE, ChemE), employed deep learning models for the automatic quantification and classification of microplastics. 

Shi used scanning electron microscopes to segment images of microplastics and classify their shapes. When compared to visual screening methods, this approach provided a greater depth of field and finer surface detail that can prevent false identification of small and transparent plastic particles.  

“Deep learning allows our approach to speed up the quantification of microplastics, especially since we had to remove other materials that could create false identifications, such as minerals, substrate, organic matter and organisms,” says Shi.   

“We were able to develop accurate algorithms that can effectively quantify and classify the objects in such complex environments.” 

It is this diversity in the chemical composition and shapes of microplastics that can create difficulties for many researchers, especially since there is no standardized method to quantify microplastics.  

Shi collected microplastic samples in various shapes and chemical compositions — such as beads, films, fibres, foams and fragments — from sources including face wash, plastic bottles, foam cups, washing and drying machines, and medical masks. He then processed images of the individual samples using the scanning electron microscope to create a library of hundreds of images. 

This project is the first labelled open-source dataset for microplastics image segmentation, which allows researchers from all over the world to benefit from this new method and develop their own algorithms specific to their research interests.   

This method also has the potential to go down to the scale of nanoplastics, which are particles smaller than 0.1 micrometres,” says Shi.  

A scanning electron microscope (SEM) plate holding microplastic samples, left, and the SEM used for the project, right. (Photo: Bin Shi)

“If we can continue to expand our library of images to include more microplastic samples from different environments with varied shapes and morphologies, we can monitor and analyze microplastic pollution much more effectively.” 

For now, the goal of Passeport and Tan’s predictive model is to be a diagnostic tool that can help researchers identify areas where they should concentrate their analytical efforts with more in-depth technologies. 

The team also hopes this method can empower citizen scientists to monitor microplastic pollution in their own environments.  

“Individuals can collect samples, filter and dry them to get the weight and then use a trained algorithm to predict the amount of microplastics,” says Passeport. 

“As we continue our work, we want to introduce some automatic training sample selection methods that will allow individuals to just click a button and automatically select the training sample,” adds Tan. 

We want to make our method easy so that they can be used by anyone, without them needing any knowledge of machine learning and mathematics.”  


By Safa Jinje

This story originally published by Engineering News

Grad student profile: Mengqing Kan, PhD candidate

Mengqing Kan (CivE PhD candidate). (Photo courtesy Mengqing Kan)

In advance of the coming Graduate Research Days, February 24 & 25, CivMin contacted previous participants to get their point of view on the event and their research goals at U of T. Our Q&A is with PhD candidate Mengqing Kan.


Can you please tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Mengqing Kan. I am from China. I got my bachelor’s degree from Simon Fraser University, majoring in sustainable business. Then I went to the University of Michigan to pursue my master’s degree in Environment and Sustainability. At U of T I am supervised by Prof. Daniel Posen and Prof. Heather MacLean. I am interested in researching carbon capture and utilization technologies. What attracted you to bring you to U of T?
I decided to come to U of T because my research interests aligned with those of my supervisors and the SPM group. Professors Posen and MacLean were recommended by my master’s supervisors, who provided me advice on PhD programs. Also, because my master’s thesis is about plastics, and Prof Posen has published multiple articles on the subject, I was familiar with Prof Posen’s work before I decided to apply for a PhD. I had an interview with them before to GRD. What kind of experience did you have with Graduate Research Days (GRD) last year?
Last year I was able to participate in GRD online. We used an internet portal to view a video tour of the labs, which was provided by several current students. We also went to other rooms to speak with professors and current students; depending on how many people were in the room at the time, it might be one-on-one or group discussions. It exceeded my expectations because I had enough time to talk to my interested professors, and existing students addressed my questions about the school and program. Had you been to Toronto, or anywhere in Canada, before?
I lived in Vancouver and studied in Simon Fraser University for four years. I have travelled around in the west coast, but I never visited Toronto before. How did you find the city when you first arrived? What made an impression?
When I first arrived, I liked the city. I find commuting by bike in downtown Toronto is incredibly convenient due to the availability of shared bikes and bike lanes. Did you already know Toronto is the most diverse (multiculturual) city in the world?
I did not know that. But I feel Toronto is a very diverse city. Especially at U of T, as many of my classmates and people in my research group came from diverse backgrounds. What kind of impression did you have of the U of T campus upon your first visit?
Because U of T St. George campus is in downtown Toronto, I found it is very convenient to subway stations, gallery, museum, shopping malls, restaurants. Do you now have a favourite place to visit on campus, or perhaps in the nearby neighbourhoods?
I like Philosopher’s walk. Philosopher’s Walk is a leafy walkway at the St George campus. It is a short distance from Trinity College. The Walk’s gorgeous natural setting makes me relax. It’s a good place to gather and walk. You started in September 2021, so now have a bit better idea of what you want to research (correct?). Can you tell us a bit more about this? 
I am interested in use life cycle assessment and mathematics optimization model to investigate how do the various CCU pathways help Canada achieve net zero emissions by 2050 while maximizing economic returns. Do you have any advice for graduate students considering attending GRD this year?
I think GRD is a great opportunity to know our interested supervisors. I recommend prospective students to do some research about professor’s research area; this will help with the communication. What’s next for you in the future?
I will keep working on my research. This summer I plan to attend an academic conference. Is there anything fun/unusual hobby or talent you’d like to share with us?
I like playing table tennis and Guzheng, a traditional Chinese musical instrument.

Researchers investigate health effects of fracking in B.C.’s Northeast

U of T’s Élyse Caron-Beaudoin and Marianne Hatzopoulou are working together to shed light on how fracking impacts air quality for B.C. communities and residents’ exposure to contaminants (photo by Johnny Guatto)

With thousands of wells and counting, the Northeast region of British Columbia is one of Canada’s most important hubs of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the process of blasting pressurized liquid at rock formations to fracture them and release the natural gas trapped inside.

Part of the region sits atop the Montney Formation, a massive, football-shaped tract of land that stretches into northwestern Alberta and is believed to contain one of the world’s richest reserves of shale gas.

But in addition to releasing gas, fracking also causes the emission of chemicals that can cause or exacerbate health problems, including birth defects, cancers and asthma. And while communities located near fracking areas have raised concerns about the health impacts, there has been a dearth of Canadian studies on the topic — until now.

Élyse Caron-Beaudoin, an assistant professor in environmental health in the Department of Health and Society at the University of Toronto Scarborough, is lead author of the only Canadian studies to have explored the health impacts and exposure to contaminants associated with fracking. The latest study, published in Science of the Total Environment, found high levels of some volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in tap water and indoor air in the homes of pregnant women living in the Peace River Valley in Northeast B.C. The study was designed in partnership with the Treaty 8 Tribal Association, the West Moberly First Nations and the Saulteau First Nations.

“Overall, there are consistent associations with negative health effects,” says Caron-Beaudoin, who co-leads one of the only research groups actively investigating the health impacts of fracking in Canada and previously ran a smaller pilot study that found high levels of trace metals in urine and hair samples of pregnant women in two Northeast B.C. communities.

“What we don’t have a lot of in the literature is exposure assessment — measuring the level of exposure of local communities to chemicals that are potentially emitted or released during unconventional natural gas operations.”

To help fill this gap, Caron-Beaudoin is teaming up with Marianne Hatzopoulou, a professor in the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, to shed light on how fracking impacts air quality and exposure to contaminants.

The project combines Hatzopoulou’s expertise in air quality research — modelling road transportation emissions, assessing urban air quality and evaluating population exposure to air pollutants — with Caron-Beaudoin’s scholarship in environmental health to lay the groundwork for a better understanding of the environmental and health justice implications of fracking.

It’s being supported by a $120,000 grant from XSeed, a funding program that aims to catalyze inter-disciplinary research collaborations involving scholars from the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering and one of U of T’s other academic divisions.

Hatzopoulou’s first task is to develop air quality models — computer simulations that estimate the concentration of air pollutants generated by an activity, and the degree of population exposure to these contaminants — for various fracking scenarios.

“In urban environments, we try to quantify how much a car emits while it’s driving one kilometre,” says Hatzopoulou. “In industrial settings, we may try to understand how much is emitted from the stack as a function of the production of a certain material. With gas fracking, we try to understand what is being emitted during the different life stages of gas wells.”

The modelling, which involves combining existing measurements, data from regulatory agencies and data from published literature, includes creating an “emissions inventory.” It’s effectively a database containing information on the pollutants generated by different kinds of wells across their various stages of operation.

“What the air quality model does is resolve how air pollutants being emitted in the environment are going to disperse because of wind, meteorology, etc., and how they are going to chemically react with other species that are present in the atmosphere. Eventually, the output includes concentrations of multiple air pollutants that individuals are exposed to,” Hatzopolou says.

“Once exposures from the model are assigned to various individuals, we want to investigate how they relate to measurements conducted in homes and other markers in biological samples.”

This is where data from Caron-Beaudoin’s studies — she measured chemicals in indoor air and tap water, as well as the hair and nails of pregnant women — come into play.

“The urine gives you an indication of short-term exposure and the nails and hair more of a long-term exposure, so we can trace their exposure patterns back in time using those different types of samples,” Caron-Beaudoin says.

By probing the associations between Hatzopoulou’s modelled air pollution data and the chemical and biological samples gathered by Caron-Beaudoin, the researchers hope to develop a better understanding of the links between fracking activity and exposure to toxins.

Caron-Beaudoin’s team have also been working on developing exposure metrics related to well density, proximity and the different stages of well operation. That includes well pad preparation, drilling, fracking and gas production. The association between those metrics and modelled fracking emissions will also be investigated.

Ultimately, the goal is to generate evidence — and a suite of tools — to help estimate exposure to contaminants, an area where little knowledge exists due to the exorbitant cost of carrying out ongoing exposure studies.

“A big challenge of exposure assessment is the logistics and cost — it costs a lot of money to go to remote areas and have air quality sampling and water quality sampling,” Caron-Beaudoin says. “Hopefully our project can provide tools to estimate exposure accurately without having to rely on traditional exposure assessment methods that are costly and difficult to implement.”

Hatzopoulou adds that she hopes their work can be leveraged to inform regulations and engineering decisions that make it possible to curb the detrimental health impacts of fracking. What if well numbers are capped in certain areas? Should exploration be concentrated in certain spaces? How can air pollution be minimized through smart engineering decisions?

“This study will provide health and exposure information, which are lacking when regulatory agencies are currently issuing permits for fracking,” Hatzopoulou says.

A more immediate priority is to empower communities with knowledge about the impact of fracking operations on their health. Such information is critical given that the communities located near Canada’s fracking hotspots are disproportionately rural and Indigenous, and are therefore already disadvantaged by health and economic disparities.

“First and foremost, it’s important to arm communities with data about their exposures, what they’re breathing and the impact of what they’re seeing every day,” Hatzopoulou says.

“That’s the goal,” Caron-Beaudoin adds. “To share the data and results with communities so that they have as much information as possible to help make decisions on the types of industrial development happening on their territory.”


By Rahul Kalvapalle


This story originally posted by U of T News

CivMin professor on a mission to lower concrete’s carbon footprint

The carbon footprint of concrete is mainly due to the chemistry of Portland cement, one of its key ingredients. Research by U of T engineering professor Doug Hooton (CivMin) shows that a few simple substitutions can cut this carbon footprint in half. (Photo: twenty20photos, via Envato Elements)

For Professor Doug Hooton (CivMin), the challenge isn’t really the chemistry or the engineering. It’s trust.

“Construction is a very conservative industry, and it’s very decentralized,” he says. “You have building owners, architects, structural engineers, contractors and their tradesmen. None of them want to increase their risk by doing something different from what’s been done before.”

For more than a decade, Hooton and his team have been demonstrating that a few simple adjustments to the formulation of concrete can significantly reduce its environmental impact, without affecting its cost or performance.

They have conducted extensive field trials, and Hooton has even written standards to encourage the use of these modified materials. But it has been slow going.

“All of this stuff is really just the low-hanging fruit,” he says. “You’d think it would be a no-brainer, but it isn’t.”

The challenge with concrete starts with the chemistry of one of its key ingredients: Portland cement. To make it, producers mix limestone — which is mostly calcium carbonate — with various clay minerals and process it through a kiln at very high temperatures.

In the kiln, the calcium loses its carbon, which is driven off as CO2 gas, and then combines with silica, alumina and other elements in the clay to create clinker — the precursor to cement. Portland cement is then made by grinding clinker together with gypsum into a fine power.

The carbon dioxide gas emitted during the kiln reactions, combined with emissions from burning fossil fuels to heat the kiln, mean that for every kilogram of cement clinker produced, a nearly equivalent mass of CO2 is emitted.

One way to address this challenge is to change the formulations of the cementing materials to lower their carbon footprints. Hooton has championed national and international standards for a material known as Portland-limestone cement, which replaces up to 15% of the final cement powder with ground raw limestone.

The resulting material is a drop-in replacement for Portland cement in concrete, and is able to meet the same performance standards, as Hooton has shown through laboratory experiments and field trials.

“For example, one of the concerns that has been raised is the idea that this type of cement might be susceptible to attack by sulphates,” he says. “Sulphate minerals are common in soils in Western Canada, and can degrade some types of concrete if they are not designed for it.”

Through the NSERC/Cement Association of Canada Industrial Research Chair in Concrete Durability and Sustainability, Hooton initiated a field trial that has now been running for 11 years. His team cast more than 1,000 beams of concrete, some made with traditional Portland cement, and others made with Portland-limestone cement. All the beams were then exposed to aggressive sulphate solutions.

In this photo from 2010, then-graduate student Reza Ahani (CivMin PhD 1T9) prepares concrete samples made with various formulations for testing. (Photo Doug Hooton)
In this photo from 2010, then-graduate student Reza Ahani (CivMin PhD 1T9) prepares concrete samples made with various formulations for testing. (Photo: Doug Hooton)

“We take them out and look at them every year,” he says. “The ones made with Portland-limestone cement are fine, in fact they’re actually performing better than many traditional concretes that have been specifically designed to stand up to sulphates.”

In addition to pure limestone, Hooton and his team have also tested other potential cement clinker replacements for use in concrete. One of these is a substance known as blast furnace slag, a waste product of the iron and steel industry, which can be mixed with either Portland cement and Portland-limestone cement at levels of up to 75%. This cuts the overall amount of cement used, lowering emissions proportionally.

“A switch to Portland-limestone cement, followed by a substitution of 35 to 40% slag would cut the carbon footprint of the resulting concrete by about half,” says Hooton.

Hooton says that one of the concerns about using slag is that at high replacement levels, it slows down the time it takes for the concrete to gain strength. This affects the early-age strength required to allow different construction operations, though the final strength is the same.

“We build structures to last 100 years, not just a few weeks,” he says. “So the final strength, which you reach at about 90 days, is what matters. On that timeline, we’ve shown that blast furnace slag mixed with Portland-limestone cement actually works better than with Portland cement because of reactions that happen between carbon in the limestone and alumina compounds in the slag.”

To deal with the early-age strength issue, Hooton and his team have done research on advanced testing methods. Currently, most standards for cement and concrete are based on testing the strength of the material after 28 days.

While this is sufficient time for traditional Portland cement to develop its properties, as noted above, some cement replacements can lengthen this timeline. Specifiers are resistant to adopting new protocols that will take two or three times as long as those they are used to.

“We can accelerate the testing process by increasing concrete temperature,” says Hooton. “It’s not rocket science, and we’ve known how to do it for decades. If we can give you a good indicator at 28 days of what’s going to happen at 90 days, it might grease the wheels in terms of getting these alternative materials more widely adopted.”

Hooton’s views and evidence carry weight: he serves as the chair of the CSA Group’s Committee on Concrete Materials and Methods of Concrete Construction and the chair of the Durability of Concrete committee of the American Concrete Institute. He is also the chair of the ASTM International committee on cements.

But he points out that simply creating standards is not enough to have lower-carbon footprint materials used in practice. To this end, he recently partnered with a team of experts on a new initiative aimed at identifying the barriers to rapid adoption of carbon reduction technologies in the North American concrete industry

The collaboration includes Dr. Tom Van Dam of NCE, an American engineering consulting firm, Professor Larry Sutter of Michigan Technological University and Al Innis, a former Vice-President of Lafarge-Holcim, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of building materials.

“In phase 1 of this project , we’re looking at the overall flows of cements, from where it’s produced to where it’s utilized, and identifying the barriers to adoption of more sustainable cementitious materials at each point along that chain,” he says.

“After that, we’re going to be developing a plan to systematically address those barriers. What we’re looking for are the big plays, including the places where some education and technology transfer will increase trust of the various parties in construction and make the most impact. And I’m optimistic we’ll find them.”

By Tyler Irving

This story originally posted by Engineering News

Cargo e-bikes get green light from City of Toronto

On June 8, 2021, Toronto City Council approved a plan to update City of Toronto bylaws to allow for the continued use of cargo e-bikes that support businesses in meeting unprecedented demand for local deliveries while also making way for a new micromobility pilot for larger cargo e-bikes.

The proposal received letters of support from UTTRI associated faculty Professor Matthew Roorda, Canada Research Chair, Freight Transportation and Logistics, and Chair of the Smart Freight Centre; The Bike Brigade; The Pembina Institute; and Cycle Toronto.

In his letter of support, Roorda says that greener transportation modes, such as cargo e-bikes for last-mile delivery, are  proactive steps for the environment and will open up research opportunities:

“It is no longer news that we are already behind in the race to battle climate change. As such, we must act aggressively and proactively to protect the environment. One such way is to adopt and promote alternative transportation modes, including Cargo E-bikes for last mile delivery.

“This [approval] will enable our current [City Logistics for the Urban Economy] research to proceed with pilot research programs with Cargo E-Bikes on the U of T Campus. This work will positively impact consumer access and drive new business opportunities. At the same time, it has the potential of significantly reducing CO2 emissions.

“There is immense opportunity in this area, we voice our full support for the ongoing policy developments in our city to enable a pilot program Cargo E-bikes of >120kg and up to 1000w in the near future.” – Professor Matthew Roorda, Canada Research Chair, Freight Transportation and Logistics

Professor Roorda and Dr. Ahmed Lasisi from University of Toronto, and Professor Kevin Gingerich from York University, are developing cargo tricycle initiatives on the U of T and York University campuses as part of the City Logistics in the Urban Economy (CLUE) project.

In March 2021, the Province of Ontario introduced a new cargo e-bike regulation and pilot for Ontario municipalities. The provincial pilot requires that municipalities choose to opt-in and change their bylaws to allow for use of any cargo e-bike weighing over 55 kilograms on public streets including bike lanes and cycle tracks.

As part of the provincial pilot, the City has an opportunity to potentially allow for larger cargo e-bikes weighing more than 120 kilograms to be piloted. A pilot project with larger cargo e-bikes would allow the City to evaluate use and impacts of such e-bikes in Toronto. The provincial O. Reg 141/21 Pilot Project – Cargo Power-Assisted Bicycles is available online.

“More people than ever are shopping locally online and relying on quick and efficient delivery services to get their purchases in a timely fashion. Cargo e-bikes represent a great opportunity for local businesses to meet that demand in a way that is environmentally responsible and helps reduce traffic congestion.” – Mayor John Tory

“Continuing to allow cargo e-bikes on Toronto’s streets and cycling infrastructure can help reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants, reduce traffic congestion, and enhance how goods are moved throughout the city.” – Councillor Jennifer McKelvie (Scarborough-Rouge Park), Chair of the Infrastructure and Environment Committee

This article originally published by Urban Transportation Research Institute (UTTRI) 


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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

Amid a pandemic, U of T Engineering Design Team pushes ahead on energy retrofit project

Northern Light Solutions team at their energy audit at Orde Street Public School.

One lesson this pandemic brought to light is that a reduced carbon footprint can have a measurable impact on the environment. Students from the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering knew that to be the case when they began work on an energy retrofit project for a local school.

Northern Lights Solutions (NLS) is a student design team in the Canadian/National Electrical Contractors Association University of Toronto Student Chapter (CECA/NECA U of T). Each year, the team takes part in the ELECTRI International Green Energy Challenge (GEC). They partner up with a local community service organization, to propose retrofits and implement an energy awareness campaign that helps the facility to reduce its overall energy consumption.

“This competition is a great chance for us students to learn about sustainable building designs and give back to our local community,” said Noah Cassidy (CivE Year 4), President of CECA/NECA U of T. “I love building on our past success with enthusiastic students and initiatives to enhance the competition experience.”

NLS tours of a real solar panel system on campus.

Before the 2020 GEC began, the CECA/NECA U of T Executive Team improved their recruiting efforts with a series of workshops focused on each sub team in the competition. These workshops ranged from interactive activities to tours of a real solar panel system on campus (pictured on the right).

“The executive team took a different approach to marketing our club early on this school year,” said Pavani Perera (CivE Year 4), Student Outreach Coordinator of CECA/NECA U of T. “These workshops let us engage with new students by giving them the chance to find out which sub-teams align with their interests and skills. From there, we ended up with a diverse, committed team to tackle GEC”.

With new recruiting initiatives, NLS continues to grow with students from various STEM programs passionate about green energy, community involvement, and leadership development. The 2020 GEC team leads include: Rose Zhang (CivE Year 2) (Co-Project Manager); Adrian Sin (CivE Year 3) (Co-Project Manager); Mahia Anhara (CivE Year 3) (Project Management); Bo Zhao (CivE Year 1) (Building Energy Performance); Ziyi Wang (CivE Year 2) (Lighting), Keziah Nongo (CivE Year 2) (Solar), and Kin Hey Chan (CivE Year 1) (Community Engagement).

This year, NLS is working with Orde Street Junior Public School, located right by the U of T campus in downtown Toronto. In February, the team conducted an energy audit at the school to figure out energy usage with electricity, building enclosures, mechanical systems, and lighting.

Since then, each sub team was hard at work developing retrofits that could realistically be implemented to improve the facility’s energy performance as well as generate energy on-site. The main goal is to find cost-effective ways to achieve net-zero energy, in which the facility generates as much or more energy as it uses. Some retrofits the team focused on include efficient boilers, light shelves, and a roof-mounted solar photovoltaic system connected to the grid.

The unique challenge this year was the outreach portion of the project. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the team could not carry out their energy awareness campaign in person at the school; instead, they took a more creative approach with virtual learning. NLS created a series of remote lesson plans for both elementary and intermediate level students at the school.

“Our team has put together lesson plans, videos, blog posts, and an online game with the themes of energy, building materials, and how the indoor environment impacts human wellbeing,” said Chan. “It’s been fun for us to create and we hope the students learn to do their part for the environment right from home. We really appreciate the support from the school staff and parents in delivering this material”.

NLS wrapped up their proposal for the June 1st GEC deadline. They are determined to top their second place finish last year for their work at Armour Heights Presbyterian Church in North York. Back in September 2019, they got the exciting opportunity to present that project and be recognized at the NECA Convention in Las Vegas. This year, if selected as a top team, NLS will get to present their proposal in Chicago!

“We’d like to thank Professor Brenda McCabe (our faculty advisor), the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering, and our industry connections at CECA for the amazing support and resources they provide us with each year. We plan to continue working hard to help our local communities!” said Cassidy.

U of T student team helps local church achieve sustainability and reduce its energy footprint

During the energy audit at AHPC, Noah Cassidy (left) recorded window temperature with a thermal imaging camera while Niloufar Ghaffari (right) recorded lux readings for lighting retrofits.

July 2019 Update:

The U of T CECA student chapter team placed first in the initial round of the Green Energy Challenge. They now have to create a video and present their project at the NECA convention in Las Vegas in September.

With energy costs on the rise, organizations all over Canada are looking to reduce their energy consumption wherever possible — and these U of T Engineering students are helping to make that possible.

Northern Lights Solutions (NLS) is a design team within the student chapter of the Canadian/National Electrical Contractors Association (CECA/NECA U of T). The group works with client organizations to create retrofit plans, which aim to reduce the client’s overall energy consumption and promote onsite power generation.

As a part of their 2019 submission to the ELECTRI International Green Energy Challenge, NLS is working with the Armour Heights Presbyterian Church (AHPC). They have conducted an energy audit that assessed electricity usage, lighting, building enclosures, and mechanical systems at the facility. The team is developing a retrofit proposal that will improve AHPC’s building performance and will achieve a net-zero energy footprint.

In addition to the energy audit, NLS introduced an energy conservation awareness campaign for young children at the church through the Sunday School program and Mission Possible Kids Night.

“It means a lot for us to be able to connect with the tight knit community at Armour Heights,” said Dorothy Liu (CivE Year 3), President of CECA/NECA U of T. “It was rewarding to inspire the children to take care of the environment each and every day. It made us appreciate our technical work and we couldn’t have done it without the support of the incredible church community!”

During the energy audit at AHPC, Noah Cassidy (left) recorded window temperature with a thermal imaging camera while Niloufar Ghaffari (right) recorded lux readings for lighting retrofits.

NLS will submit its retrofit proposal as a part of their entry into the ELECTRI International Green Energy Challenge. If selected as a top team, NLS will travel to Las Vegas this fall to present their proposal.

This competition allows students to expand their knowledge of sustainable buildings and make meaningful contributions through volunteering.

“The Green Energy Challenge bridges theory and application by providing students with the opportunity to use their knowledge to help their community,” said Professor Brenda McCabe (CivMin), the team’s faculty advisor. “By entering this international challenge, students gain exposure to the industry and have an opportunity to create connections with current CECA/NECA members.”

“As a testament to the achievements of this student group, two of the four projects they have previously proposed have been implemented by the client organizations, who were inspired by the team’s work,” continued McCabe.

Since 2015, NLS has grown to a team of diverse students from various STEM programs, brought together by their passion for sustainable buildings, green energy, and leadership development. Currently, the team includes: Noah Cassidy (CivE Year 4) (Project Manager), Jacqueline Lu (CivE 1T8) (Finance/Audit), Yuexin Liu (Mathematics Year 1) (Building Performance), Niloufar Ghaffari (CivE Year 4) (Lighting), Fariha Oyshee (CivE Year 2) (Solar), and Lauren Streitmatter (ChemE Year 1) (Community Engagement).

“The entire NLS team would like to thank the University of Toronto Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering for providing us with the resources and support, empowering us to make an impact on organizations in our community,” said Liu.

Originally published on April 23, 2019. Updated on July 31, 2019

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