Welcome!

I teach in the Chemical Engineering program, and formerly managed Engineering’s undergraduate admission process.  On this site is a collection of past posts about admissions, and  I’ll continue to write about issues  related to engineering research, teaching, education and admissions from time to time.   Comments and general questions are welcomed, but I can’t give detailed feedback on your specific circumstances.  Please contact the university for expert advice related to current admissions and see The Road to Engineering for posts from the current Director of Admissions.
 

Cruise Ship Air Quality

An interesting news story about the measurement of air quality on cruise ships appeared recently.  Specifically, it dealt with the concentration of ultrafine particulate (UFP) matter in the air on four cruise ships, measured by a researcher from Johns Hopkins University.  UFP is invisible matter with diameters of around 100 nanometres (nm), which is about  1,000 times smaller than a human hair, and it is implicated in airway inflammation and effects on other organs in the human body.  Being interested in air quality, I looked up the actual study report which you can also read here.  Here is my take on the work and meaning… Continue reading

Chemical Engineering Imagery

My department put together a nice short video about Chemical Engineering.  It shows some quick images of areas where chemical engineers work, such as alternative energy, pharmaceuticals, water, food processing, and others.  And there are more images about the laboratory research and teaching going on in our facilities.  Have a look and see what you think.

Ontario’s Refundable Fee Plan

The Ontario government recently announced a 10% tuition discount, as I mentioned earlier.  Along with that, they also announced that many fees will have to be made refundable for any student that doesn’t want to pay them.  The theory is that it will give “students more choice over the fees they pay” and save students money on top of their 10% discount.  It’s quite unusual for governments to start micro-managing university fees, many of which were set up to address local conditions and concerns with student support via a referendum.  There is an exception in the announcement however, and fees that “fund major, campus-wide services and facilities or fees which contribute to the health and safety of students are deemed mandatory”.  These mandatory fees include walksafe programs, health and counselling, athletics and recreation and academic support.  So, I was interested in how this affects engineering students at Waterloo, and compiled a list of fees (to the best of my ability).  It’s complicated but here they are with some comments and observations. Continue reading

Cannabis Air Emissions

 

 

With recent moves to permit sales of cannabis in Canada and some U.S. states, commercial operations are popping up in various locations.  Whenever new industries emerge, there are often new environmental impacts to consider and air pollution seems to be an increasingly common problem with cannabis too.  Not from smoking, but rather from the greenhouse operations where it is grown under lights in high-density conditions to save space.  It turns out that these intensive grow operations can have vented air emissions that are rather smelly, as this one news item describes.

Like all plants, cannabis emits volatile chemical compounds at various stages in its growth.  Some work has been reported in research literature, identifying over 200 chemicals in the air, although I suspect that paper missed a lot of odorous sulfur compounds that are often associated with “skunky” smells.  A lot of the odor compounds are terpenes or their relatives (e.g. limonene, pinene, linalool), and the paper mentions cymene, benzaldehyde, nonanal, and decanol as key odor chemicals.  None of these compounds are particularly hazardous (at least at the normally low concentrations found around plants).  None of them are specific to cannabis either.  Lots of them are produced by various plants, in varying amounts and combinations.  A lot of plant-based essential oils that you can buy contain similar chemicals.

The environmental issue arises if the odor interferes with the neighbouring property and their ability to use and enjoy their property.  The Ontario government website has some information about odors and property-owner rights .  Under Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act (Section 14) odor-emitting industries can get into legal trouble because they are emitting a “contaminant” that causes an “adverse effect”.

From an engineering point of view, the control of odorous emissions like this is not unlike many other industries with odour concerns, like sewage treatment plants, rendering plants, some food manufacturers, and some chemical manufacturers.  The first step is containment, so that odor emissions are not just leaking out of the buildings from a multitude of locations.  If everything can be efficiently captured in one or two well-controlled ventilation systems, then emissions controls can be applied to those vent streams before they discharge into the environment.

It’s not clear at this point what type of emission controls are best for both efficiency and cost points of view.  Usually there are several possible solutions, so engineers have to figure out which one is the most cost-effective.  Standard approaches to odor control run a range of technologies from wet scrubbing to activated carbon capture, to biofiltration and possibly photochemical oxidation.  High temperature thermal oxidation is another option, but probably overkill and too expensive for this application.  One solution may not fit all commercial operations either.  Each location would need a thorough engineering analysis and assessment for a good recommendation, which is something done by chemical and environmental engineers (and some mechanical engineers too).  Companies that rushed into production without doing these assessments may get stuck with expensive retro-fits once the Ministry of Environment comes knocking.

So, with every new “industry” there are issues that come up that may or may not have been anticipated by the business people.  Those issues will keep regulators and engineering consultants busy for a while.

New powder could reduce greenhouse gas emissions | Engineering | University of Waterloo

Some interesting results from my colleague’s research group.  I add some further context below the link…

Researchers at Waterloo Engineering have created a powder that could be used to reduce greenhouse gases at factories and power plants that burn fossil fuels. The advanced carbon powder, developed using a novel process in the lab of chemical engineering professor Zhongwei Chen, could filter and remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from emissions with almost twice the efficiency of conventional materials.

Source: New powder could reduce greenhouse gas emissions | Engineering | University of Waterloo

My Context/Analysis:   Some interesting work in materials science and chemistry.  From the published paper (sorry it’s behind a paywall, but I can read it through the university’s subscription), I can see that the amount of CO2 captured is about 1.6 mmole of CO2 per gram of powder, or about 70 mg/g, at flue gas conditions.  As the paper points out, this is pretty good for CO2 adsorption, but it is not a miracle cure for all of our problems.  To put it in context, in 2016 the U.S. electricity sector emitted something like 1,800,000,000,000 kg of CO2 (from the EPA website).  So, if the powder can capture 70 mg per g it would take about 26,000,000,000,000 kg of powder for one year of capture.  That’s a lot of powder!!  And that’s only for one sector in the U.S. alone (representing about 28% of U.S. CO2 emissions).  So, it’s important to continue doing research, find new things and look at potential applications in a wide range of fields.  But carbon emissions and climate change is a huge problem and there aren’t any easy answers.  Reducing CO2 emissions will generally be better than trying to capture them afterwards, like the three R’s hierarchy (reduce, reuse, recycle).

Ontario’s Tuition Discount

The Ontario government recently announced a 10% reduction in tuition for the 2019-2020 academic year, followed by a tuition freeze the next year, and there are some other changes to student aid programs.  (Note:  the 10% reduction applies to Canadians, not international/visa students.)  A blog by Alex Usher has a nice summary and analysis of the announced changes, and he concludes that for students the bottom line is that wealthier families will save some money, and less wealthy students will end up with more student loans.

Everyone likes a discount when they’re shopping.  For the retailer, they give up a bit of a markup or profit margin but still generate some profit.  However universities are non-profit institutions and have no big markup to give up.  So, although I have no particular insider information about the effects on the universities, it’s not difficult to predict.

For engineering, if I recall correctly tuition makes up over 50% of the revenue stream for teaching so a 10% tuition cut is at least a 5% revenue cut.  There might be some economies to be found here and there, but most of a university’s budget goes towards salaries.  Over time there will likely have to be some shrinkage of staff and faculty numbers, and we’re already postponing some filling of vacant faculty positions.  Students are unlikely to see or notice big changes, but there may eventually be fewer elective courses available, for example.

As Alex Usher’s blog points out, one way universities could respond is to admit more international students who pay a lot more tuition.  Hopefully this would not be at the expense of admitting Canadian students, but when governments start applying shocks to the system there can be unintended consequences.

Watching the earth move | University of Waterloo

 

An interesting story from one of our Geological Engineering students…

Seismically monitoring an active volcano in Spain? That’s last thing I thought I was going to do when I first started at the University of Waterloo five years ago! Whenever the choice for a new opportunity crops up, I always ask which option scares me most. And that’s the one I choose. This has been the fundamental question I ask myself every term when choosing a co-op job, and it led me to my recent position as a seismology intern in Europe.

Source: Watching the earth move | Alumni | University of Waterloo

Ontario’s New Climate Change Plan

The new Ontario government recently released their plan to tackle carbon emissions and climate change.  This comes after scrapping the previous government’s relatively new cap-and-trade scheme that was set up in collaboration with Quebec and California.  Below I’ll give a detailed analysis of various parts of the plan, but here is my high level overview.  There are some promising bits and pieces (without knowing a lot of details yet), but it is relatively unambitious and somewhat odd in its approach.  This new government has generally focused on reducing regulation and taxpayer-funded spending, but this plan implements additional regulations and uses tax money to subsidize industry.  This seems inconsistent.  If you want to see the plan and comment, here is the link.  Now for my detailed analysis… Continue reading

Engineering 7 Building Impressions

I was at a conference and missed the official E7 building opening, but below is a video showing some of the facility highlights.  I walk through the building frequently, and I really like the environment.  Nice open spaces, well lit, great and vibrant “energy”.  There are always people around, talking, having events, and working together in one of the many gathering areas, drawing diagrams on the walls.  Definitely seems like a pleasurable place to be.