Posts Tagged: sustainability

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


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


Without changes, Scheer’s climate plan will be expensive or useless

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer delivers a speech on the environment in Chelsea, Que. on June 19, 2019.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

David Taylor, University of Toronto

 

When Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer unveiled his long-awaited climate plan, he said he could eliminate the federal carbon tax and still meet Canada’s emissions targets by focusing on investments into green technology. Tech, not taxes, he said.

Under the plan, major emitters would not pay a carbon tax and would, instead, have to invest in “emissions-reducing technology.” But if you look closer, these investments may not actually reduce emissions.

Instead of investing in proven green technology such as wind farms and solar power, Scheer’s plan allows industries to fund things with the potential to reduce emissions, like research or green companies. This flexibility reduces the guaranteed benefits of these green investments.

Although the details remain sparse, Scheer’s proposal isn’t entirely off base: My own research shows that investment into green technologies can offset the emissions of an entire industry, but it can only work in certain circumstances. With a couple of modifications, policies like Scheer’s can bring more predictable and affordable emissions reductions.

A disguised carbon tax

Scheer’s plan includes “green investment standards” that would force major emitters to invest a set amount, based on their emissions. Investments must go to activities, technologies, companies or research that might eventually reduce emissions.

Unless large emitters invest in proven technologies, emissions may continue to rise. Shuttersock

These mandatory investments would create financial pressure to lower emissions, much like a carbon tax. But, unlike many carbon taxes, these investments aim to reduce emissions in the “medium term,” according to Scheer.

It’s not clear how long that might be or what the investment amounts will be. Surprisingly, the standards let emitters invest in indirect emissions reductions, including funding research or a purchasing a clean-tech start-up company.

Allowing investments that do not create substantial short-term emissions reductions creates a major loophole. For example, a $1 million factory expansion that also reduced factory emissions by 0.01 per cent might be considered an eligible investment under Scheer’s plan, but that $1 million would have little effect on emissions.

Scheer could improve his plan with this change: Make explicit emissions-reduction targets for investments, and let the private sector innovate and find cheaper paths to those targets.

Affordable or effective?

Typical climate policies fall into two categories. Defined costs, like a carbon tax, where fixed financial penalties encourage greener choices, but the benefits can vary. Or, defined benefits, like cap-and-trade, where regulations require emissions to change, but the costs can vary.

While research suggests that the details of a climate policy matter more than its structure, Scheer is proposing a new policy structure without providing details. Without details, Scheer’s plan may seem like the best of both a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system. But without firm emissions-reduction targets, Scheer’s policy relies on its financial incentives for emissions reductions and will behave like a carbon tax.

To be effective, therefore, the required investments per tonne of emissions in Scheer’s plan would need to be similar to the per tonne costs of the carbon tax. Yet Scheer decries projections that an effective federal carbon tax would need to climb north of $100 per tonne. Both Scheer’s plan and the federal carbon tax rely on financial incentives to reduce emissions. Either policy will force Canadians to choose between an affordable climate policy and an effective one.

My research team has found a way to ease this dilemma. With a couple of modifications, the efficiency of policies like Scheer’s can be improved by as much as five times.

A savings opportunity

We looked at what would happen to emissions if fossil fuel producers were forced to invest in green technologies that were known to be profitable or save costs, and were further required to reinvest a portion of those profits or cost savings. We created a simulation where oil and gas producers in North Dakota were forced to invest in wind turbines — and reinvest a fraction of the wind turbines’ revenue into more wind turbines.

In a simulation, researchers found that when oil and gas producers in North Dakota invested and reinvested in wind turbines, emissions and costs decreased. Shutterstock

The initial investments in wind turbines turned a profit and some of that profit went towards growing the wind farm. This feedback loop allowed the wind farm and its emissions offsets to grow exponentially and reduced the necessary initial investments. In North Dakota, the investments needed to offset all of the emissions from producing and consuming oil and gas dropped from about 50 per cent of the value of the hydrocarbons to 10 per cent because of reinvestments.

Combining investment and reinvestment into proven and successful green technologies allows green technologies to expand more quickly. Policies with reinvestment are like a savings account with a high interest rate — over time, the balance is funded by more than the initial investment.

Reinvestment makes green technologies and their emissions reductions available at a lower cost to consumers and businesses. Owning profitable and growing green technologies gives businesses, consumers and heavy emitters a transition plan, which my colleagues and I call “black-into-green,” or the BIG transition.

Mandate reinvestments

While our case study is not directly applicable everywhere (and is not as favourable in the Athabasca oil sands due to lower wind speeds and greener Canadian electricity), it demonstrates the benefits of pairing investments and reinvestments into profitable or cost-saving green technologies.

Our work suggests Scheer should make another modification to his plan: The green investment standards should mandate that heavy emitters make profitable or cost-saving green investments and reinvest a portion of those profits or savings.

Scheer’s green investment plan is missing key details and needs two major improvements. The Conservatives should mandate the efficacy of investments and require reinvestments. Without these modifications, the proposed green investment standards, like a carbon tax, are another climate policy that can be either affordable or effective — but not both.

Given this trade-off, Canadians should fear promises of affordability and advocate for more efficient climate policies.The Conversation

David Taylor, Assistant Professor in Global and Civil Engineering, University of Toronto

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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 


The search for a cleaner solution to crushing rocks

Professor Erin Bobicki (MSE, ChemE) wants to decrease the energy required for crushing rocks by 70%. (Photo courtesy of Erin Bobicki)

Whether it’s copper for electric cars, or lithium for cellphones, many everyday technologies and devices are made of or rely on metals. But mining and extracting these valuable commercial minerals can come at a catastrophic cost to the environment.

The process of comminution — crushing and grinding billions of tonnes of rocks a year — is estimated to account for more than four per cent of the world’s energy consumption. Professor Erin Bobicki (MSE, ChemE) wants to decrease the energy required for comminution by 70 per cent.

She and her collaborators in academia and industry are developing a cleaner solution using microwave technology.

“Metal is the basis of almost all the things we know and love — we need mineral processing to function as a society. Unfortunately, it’s extremely energy inefficient. If we can change that, it would make an enormous difference in mining,” says Bobicki, who has researched microwave applications in mineral processing for more than a decade.

Bobicki is leading a team to compete in the Crush It! Challenge, a competition launched by Natural Resources Canada to develop innovative solutions to reduce the energy used for crushing and grinding rocks in the mining industry. Her team, CanMicro, has just been named one of six finalists in the competition, receiving $800,000 in funding to pursue their solution.

By November 2020, the team who demonstrates the most energy savings will receive a $5 million grant to commercialize their technology.

CanMicro’s technology aims to reduce the amount of energy involved in the grinding process by exploiting the fact that valuable minerals tend to be most responsive to heat. When exposing rocks to high-powered microwaves, this variability in thermal response allows rocks that contain valuable minerals to be sorted out from those that don’t.

“That means you don’t grind the ones that don’t contain anything valuable — there’s energy savings right there,” she says.

The intense blast of heat also applies stress and strain on the rocks that generates fractures across the mineral grain boundaries, which also reduces the energy required for grinding.

“We don’t have to grind it as fine because what we’re interested in has already been liberated,” says Bobicki. “Yet another opportunity for energy savings.”

The use of microwaves in the mining industry has long been considered a niche application, says Bobicki. That’s mainly because of the hurdle in developing the technology at a larger scale to handle a high tonnage of rocks.

“That’s what excites me about this project,” she says. “The objective is to scale up.”

CanMicro — which includes Professor Chris Pickles from Queen’s University as well as industry members at Kingston Process Metallurgy, Sepro Mineral Systems, COREM and the Saskatchewan Research Council — now have 18 months to test and pick the right microwave equipment before building a pilot plant in Kingston, Ont.

“I think we have a lot of risks to overcome, since this technology has never been scaled up before. But we believe that we’re going to get much better results at high power and achieve significant energy savings,” says Bobicki. “I think our chances of winning are very good.”

Beyond the competition, Bobicki is excited to see the potential of this technology one day applied, not only at a large scale, but across the mining industry.

“You can’t apply this technology to all rocks but imagine if it worked for half of the ores and we were able to reduce half of the energy required for breaking the rocks — that’s huge at a global scale,” says Bobicki.

By Liz Do

This story originally appeared on U of T Engineering News


Smart Freight Centre aims to deliver the goods — faster and greener

The demand for goods transportation continues to rise, leading to increased traffic congestion across the GTHA. The newly launched Smart Freight Centre looks to find solutions. (Photo: Flickr)

Leading experts from U of T Engineering, McMaster University and York University are working together to improve — and future-proof — how goods are delivered across the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA) through the newly established Smart Freight Centre (SFC).

Professor Matt Roorda (CivMin), of the U of T Transportation Research Institute, is the U of T Engineering lead for the effort, and is the centre’s inaugural chair. The SFC will advance the goals outlined in the Region of Peel’s Goods Movement Strategic Plan, said Roorda in an announcement event today in Brampton, Ont.

The new centre will study ways to improve the transportation of goods throughout the region, taking into account issues like traffic, population growth and the environment.

From delivering stock to stores or packages to individual homes, the demand for freight transportation continues to rise — at the same time that expected delivery windows are narrowing.

“It’s the Amazon effect. People are buying things online and expect them delivered within a day or even within a few hours,” says Roorda. “And that has a real impact on the number of trucks on the road.”

Increased truck traffic contributes to congestion on the roads and competition for parking, both of which pose distribution challenges — especially as populations grow across the GTHA. Meanwhile, stop-and-go traffic leads to higher carbon emissions.

“We want to establish sustainable freight transportation systems that are more efficient and less impactful on communities,” says Roorda.

Roorda’s project, which launched in February, will see industry partners Walmart, Loblaws and LCBO stores piloting nighttime freight deliveries — shifting key daytime deliveries from distribution centres to retail locations to the late evening, from 7 to 11 p.m.

“There definitely seems to be a lot of spare capacity on our roadways at different times of day, so why not make better use of our current infrastructure?” says Roorda. “With there being less traffic congestion on the road during that time period, what we hope to see by studying the before and after, is that operations are running faster and more smoothly.”

His research group will also look at how the time shift will affect emission levels, examine cost mitigation for companies, and consider whether late-evening noise levels is an issue for residents along freight delivery routes.

The pilot is one of three initial projects underway in the SFC, with each of the three partner universities leading one. York University will study the feasibility of establishing truck-only lanes in the GTHA, while McMaster will research e-commerce purchasing behaviours to predict driving trends of future home-delivery demands.

Roorda and his colleagues at York and McMaster are currently developing SFC’s five-year plan, which will include research projects on automated trucks, and innovative alternatives to last-mile deliveries.

“I think we can make an impact with not just research papers in journals, but with demonstrated projects — there’s one foot in real life happening with this centre,” says Roorda. “These are on-the-ground problems that we’re trying to solve.”

By Liz Do


Story originally appeared on U of T Engineering News


A global approach to sustainable cities engineering

Professor Murray Metcalfe (MIE, second from left) was among the EESC-A team members at a recent conference on strategies for low-carbon growth and sustainable energy use in Dar es Salaam. The event was held at the Bank of Tanzania Conference Centre and was co-hosted by the International Growth Centre (IGC), Ardhi University, and U of T Engineering’s EESC-A project. (Photo: Victor Faustine)

Tokyo is currently the largest city in the world but by 2050 it may drop to seventh place, surpassed by fast-growing cities such as Kinshasa and Lagos. For Murray Metcalfe (MIE) this explosive growth presents both a challenge and an opportunity for engineers.

“We were inspired by a study published by our collaborator Dan Hoornweg, which predicts that by 2100, 13 of the largest 20 cities in the world will be in sub-Saharan Africa,” he says. “The challenge is: how do you build enough infrastructure to support cities of this size? The opportunity is: can that infrastructure be sustainable?”

Metcalfe is the project director of the Engineering Education for Sustainable Cities in Africa (EESC-A) project, which began in 2016. The goal of EESC-A is to explore U of T Engineering’s role in helping to train future “sustainable cities engineers” who will shape the direction of African megacities of the future.

The project involves both community building and the creation of flexible, adaptable course materials that can be delivered online. Over the years, the team has included Hoornweg and post-doctoral researcher Dr. Nadine Ibrahim, now the Turkstra Chair in Urban Engineering at the University of Waterloo. Other key contributors include senior researcher and project coordinator Dr. Rahim Rezaie, civil engineering PhD candidate Chibulu Luo, and a large number of graduate students, undergrads, and scholars across the world, including in Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia.

The Toronto-based EESC-A team members travel frequently to various African countries to build and maintain a network of institutions and academics with expertise in sustainable cities. Collectively, they have visited about 30 engineering schools in 10 countries since 2016. The program has also funded four African “roaming scholars” to travel within the continent, further strengthening these bonds through interactions and collaboration. The roaming scholars are:

  • David Olukanni, Professor in Water Resources and Environmental Engineering in the Civil Engineering Department at Covenant University, Nigeria.
  • Gilbert Siame, founder and director of the Centre for Urban Research & Planning (CURP) at the University of Zambia.
  • Innocent Musonda, Associate Professor and founding director of the Centre for Applied Research & Innovation in the Built Environment (CARINBE) at the University of Johannesburg.
  • Fatma Mohamed, head of the Structural and Construction Engineering Department at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

Last fall, three of these four scholars — along with their students — participated in a project known as the Global Classroom, through which an online course developed by Ibrahim was delivered simultaneously across multiple institutions. Students would step through the content with their respective professors, then meet once a week via videoconference with the entire team.

“At some schools, the students assembled together in a classroom but in others, due to time zone differences, they’d be in their homes, maybe even in their cars,” says Metcalfe. “Each time, we were able to have a robust discussion about the material and how it applied to the individual cities where the students lived.”

The team has received very positive feedback about the first iteration of the course which was run as a not-for-credit trial. Future online courses may offer full course credit, either at U of T or the partner institutions.

“We have seen a number of cases in Africa where online education strategies are successfully used to enhance access,” says Rezaie. “This is area is ripe for further development and could be an effective way for institutions such as U of T to contribute to the continent’s development by directly engaging with African scholars and students.”

In the meantime, a successful EESC-A Workshop in Livingstone, Zambia last summer drew senior African engineering educators from multiple countries. Last month, Luo spent time in Rwanda as a visiting scholar at the African Leadership University, which recently opened a new campus in Kigali. She attended several classes on sustainable engineering and delivered lectures on her field research on low-carbon energy pathways in Tanzania and Zambia.

Rezaie and Metcalfe are also collaborators on another project, known as the Virtual Global Engineering Classrooms (V-GET). V-GET, led by Professor Elham Marzi (ISTEP), will leverage some of the lessons of EESC-A to expose U of T Engineering students to global perspectives within their courses. Through V-GET, teams made up of students from U of T Engineering and other international institutions will collaborate virtually on design projects.

While there are many benefits for U of T Engineering student to this type of international collaboration, Metcalfe emphasizes that the focus of EESC-A remains on Africa.

“From the beginning, we’ve been clear that the solutions to the challenge of making Africa’s rapidly-growing cities sustainable will come from African scholars, practitioners, and decision-makers,” he says. “Our hope is that the model we’ve created offers a mutually beneficial partnership that can help avoid some of the mistakes we’ve made in Western cities, while sharing new insights that can lead to the great African city of the 21st century.”

By Tyler Irving

This story originally posted on U of T Engineering News


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