Long-term effects of forest fires pose threats to drinking water

An interesting article about my colleague Prof. Emelko’s research.  I’m somewhat jealous that she gets to fly in a helicopter!

Forest fires are sweeping North America with detrimental environmental, economic and human impacts. A research team, led by University of Waterloo Engineering professor Monica Emelko, will receive $5.5 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) Strategic Partnership Grant for Networks to provide new knowledge on the impacts of different forest management strategies on drinking water source quality and treatability.

Source: Long-term effects of forest fires pose threats to drinking water | Water Institute | University of Waterloo

Co-op students build first-of-its-kind machine in Canada | Engineering | University of Waterloo

An interesting article about some co-op student efforts in one of our research labs.  I learned about Spatial Atomic Layer Deposition, which is an interesting application of nanoscience and materials engineering.

With the help of seven University of Waterloo co-op students, Canada’s first Spatial Atomic Layer Deposition (SALD) system is up and running. At the celebratory ribbon cutting on May 10, 2018, project leader Professor Kevin Musselman said he couldn’t have done it without the co-op students who helped design and build the machine. “I was sitting at my desk the whole time. I don’t think I ever lifted a finger so it was entirely built by the students,” laughs Musselman.

Source: Co-op students build first-of-its-kind machine in Canada | Engineering | University of Waterloo

Garbage Research

Over the past month I’ve spent some time on research topics related to garbage.  Or more accurately, energy from waste, sustainable materials management, circular economy issues, reduction and recycling.  To the public, such things may not be as exciting as self-driving cars, but as landfills, oceans, and beaches fill with wastes they are becoming more noticeable and pressing issues.

First, I helped to organize our 5th annual Resource Recovery Partnerships Conference here at Waterloo in late June.  Over two days, we had lots of presentations and networking among academic, industrial and municipal government people discussing various issues related to waste reduction and management.  Shortly after that, I attended the Air & Waste Management Association’s annual conference, held in Hartford CT.  There, I saw a number of interesting presentations on “zero waste”, sustainability, and case studies of projects.  Between these two events I learned a few things that I can summarize below: Continue reading

Water Testing: From Research to Kickstarter

One focus of my research group’s efforts over the past 10 years has been collaborative R&D with small and start-up companies.  They often have some very interesting ideas and needs, but lack the facilities and technical team to do the work in-house.  So this is a perfect opportunity for us to help them out with creating new businesses and for my students to get some “real-world” research experience with commercialization projects.

One major effort has been in the development of nanotechnology for rapid water quality testing, in particular for bacterial contamination.  Traditional laboratory methods require 3 to 7 days to complete, which is a rather long time to wait if you’re concerned about your water quality.  Through our collaborative R&D projects, we’ve developed a test method that can give an answer in a few minutes.  This rapid feedback allows people to make informed decisions about what to do next, whether to treat the water further, or send samples to a lab for more extensive testing, etc.

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Prototype ExactBlue water testing system.

One recent development is the creation of a more automated, smart-phone based system that’s suitable for regular consumer use.  A prototype model is shown in the photograph.  We’ve been testing the prototype devices with our nanotechnology-based reagent (which goes into the test tube), and doing validation and calibration work.  Everything is looking good and everyone has been pleased with the results.  It’s reliably and quickly detecting microbial contamination in our water samples, and there are some other water tests under development that will be able to use the same platform.

To get to the next stage, which is production of the first batch of devices for sale, the company has just launched a Kickstarter campaign.  Have a look at their Kickstarter website to see much more information about the technology and where they are headed.

University of Waterloo students make a big splash in the 2017 AquaHacking semi-finals | Water Institute

An interesting competition event showcasing environmental water quality innovations by student groups.  Sponsored by the Water Institute at Waterloo, one of the research centres I belong to.

The AquaHacking 2017 semi-final competition unfolded last week at CIGI. By the end of the evening, five teams were chosen to move on to the final competition at Waterloo on September 13. It was a difficult decision for the five judges, as all 17 teams that competed offered innovative ideas that tackled the challenges and opportunities facing Lake Erie.

Source: University of Waterloo students make a big splash in the 2017 AquaHacking semi-finals | Water Institute

Amazon partners with Waterloo to support AI research | Waterloo Stories

A link below to an interesting development, where Amazon is providing Waterloo Engineering and 3 other U.S. universities with support and Alexa-enabled devices  for use in teaching, research and student design projects. 

Photo: cofoistome/iStock/Thinkstock

Recent advances in the fields of human-machine interaction and artificial intelligence (AI) have been so swift that even experts like Fakhri Karray shake their heads in amazement.

Source: Amazon partners with Waterloo to support AI research | Waterloo Stories

Research on Infection Control

A tragic statistic tells us that of all the people admitted to hospitals for various reasons, about 10% will get sick from an infection picked up in the hospital, something called a Healthcare Acquired Infection (HAI) or nosocomial infection.  Of these, about 5% will die from it, which corresponds to about 10,000 Canadian deaths per year.  The additional costs of treating these infections add up to between $4 and $5 billion in Canada.  The consequences are proportionately similar in other regions such as the U.S. and Europe.  The increases in antibiotic resistance in bacteria are adding to the problem.

Hospital infection control has traditionally focused on hand-washing, isolation, and cleaning and disinfection protocols to minimize the spread of “germs”.  However, there is a limit to how far these can go, since they rely on consistent human behaviour, which is naturally inconsistent.  Therefore in recent years there has been more focus on “engineered” approaches to infection control.  To this end, my research group and I have been working with the Coalition for Healthcare Acquired Infection Reduction (CHAIR) to help develop and test materials, processes and devices that may help in the fight against HAIs.

One project we finished tested the effects of an automated ultraviolet light (UV) disinfection device placed in patients’ bathrooms to control the background bacterial contamination between uses.  The paper can be read on this website.  The data indicated that it was possible to dramatically lower bacterial contamination levels with this device, which was nice to see.

In other work, we’ve been collaborating with Aereus Technologies to develop new antimicrobial materials and coatings for use on hospital “high-touch” surfaces and equipment.  This doesn’t eliminate the need for surface cleaning and disinfection, but it helps to kill the germs that land there between cleanings and thus reduce the chance for spread of infections.

In other more basic research, we’ve been collaborating with various other professors here at Waterloo to identify novel antimicrobial materials or detection methods for contaminants.  For example, with Prof. Michael Tam’s group we’ve published a couple of studies on antibacterial cellulose materials (abstracts are available here and here).  We recently published another paper on detection of bacterial contamination in water using an interesting combination of enzymology and nanotechnology.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with Chemical Engineering, well basically this is chemical engineering.  Working with production and characterization of materials, interactions of materials, life science and biochemistry…those are all part of chemical engineering education and possible career paths.

Hopefully over the next few years this HAI problem will begin to see some progress and we can continue to contribute to the solutions.

Waterloo researchers help launch autonomous car

(interesting story about a hot topic)  Source: Friday, January 6, 2017 | Daily Bulletin

A research team at the University of Waterloo played a key role in the development of a highly autonomous vehicle that Renesas Electronics America unveiled this week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

Using sensors and powerful computers, the car is capable of detecting and responding to other vehicles, stop signs and traffic lights to provide a safer driving experience. For example, vehicle-to-infrastructure communications allow the vehicle to detect in advance when a traffic light will change. Continue reading