Waterloo Region has a long history of German immigration and influence since its initial settlement, leading to place names like Berlin (now Kitchener), New Hamburg, Baden, and local events like Oktoberfest. Around the area you can find various places with German-style cuisine and products including at the bakery featured in this local news video link: https://kitchener.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=1477166 From personal experience, their Christmas Stollen bread and chocolates are highly addictive. But what does this have to do with chemical engineering? Continue reading
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
Artificial intelligence, or AI, seems to be the popular topic in media these days, and I have had a number of questions about it from prospective students and families over the past year. The short answer is yes, we do have AI in our Engineering programs. In fact, we have an “Option in Artificial Intelligence” available for students in any engineering program. This is essentially like a “Minor” in the topic, a package of courses related to the field (at Waterloo our terminology is a bit different, so we don’t call it a “minor”). If you complete the package of courses, you’ll have the designation on your transcript and diploma when you graduate.
Although AI seems new and exciting, the roots and development are actually fairly old, having a basis in ancient philosophy and mathematics. Even the more modern versions and applications of AI go back over 50 years to the initial developments in computational machines. One misunderstanding is that AI is all about programming, but it is actually highly mathematical at its core. Programming is just a tool for implementing the math and various algorithms.
Some people may be surprised to know that the mathematical tools and foundations for AI are not even limited to computer science or computer engineering. My colleagues in Chemical Engineering have been using them for decades for various purposes, and here are a few quick examples with links for further information.
Optimization methods are often a part of chemical plant design, scheduling, cost minimization, and various other things like this example on planning electricity generation. The control of complex chemical plant processes has been researched using artificial neural networks, like this simpler example of crude oil desalting. Bayesian inference methods are employed for dealing with the significant uncertainties in chemical processes, even by me many years ago. Kalman filter techniques are used to help us handle the noisy data coming from chemical processes, including this example from biotechnology. And there are lots of other examples, just in Chemical Engineering alone, not even looking at Civil, Mechanical and others (where I know they also use these advanced mathematical techniques).
Just another example of how broad and diverse the engineering fields are, and how concepts and tools are spread and shared across all these disciplines.
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.
Here’s a video profiling a couple of Waterloo’s Schulich Leader Scholarship holders. Of course, I especially like it because one of the students, Nicole, is in Chemical Engineering and the video has a few clips of her and her colleagues working with our new distillation equipment in one of our teaching laboratories.
It’s that time of year when senior, final-year students complete and present their “capstone design projects”. These are group design projects, usually based on industry problems or student innovation ideas. The projects are meant to be completely open-ended (i.e. there is no obvious, single, correct solution) and require students to pull together concepts from a variety of topics they have learned over the years. The projects are not assigned, it is up to the student groups to come up with ideas, either on their own or through faculty or industry connections. This is where co-op education really helps, because most of our students already have pretty good ideas based on what they have seen in their 2 years of work experience during university.
The design project results are presented in “Design Symposia” for each program, and there is a website which lists the dates in mid to late March. These are open to the public, so anyone can drop by and see what’s up. By clicking on each program, you can also find a brief description about each project. For example, here is a list of projects in my department, Chemical Engineering. I highly recommend that high school applicants and future prospects take a look at all these program listings. These are the best source of information on all the different types of things that students can do, and the wide range may surprise you. For example, many people think that Chemical Engineering is just about oil & gas, but when you look at the list you’ll see electric vehicle batteries, rooftop greenhouse design, biodegradable orthopedic implants, and controlled release antibiotics, among many other things. Anything that involves materials and energy transformations is a possible chemical engineering project.
I like looking at the Management Engineering projects too. These projects nicely emphasize that Management Engineering is not a business program (a frequent misconception with some applicants), but it is an engineering program full of math, statistical and data analysis, and optimization. The project on “Reducing Distribution Costs for Canadian Blood Services” looks quite interesting to me (stochastic modelling is always interesting!).
I haven’t had a chance to look through all the different programs and their projects yet, but I’m sure a few will soon end up as start-up companies, if they haven’t already. These capstone design projects have probably been the biggest single source of Waterloo start-ups in the last decade, I suspect. There are now quite a few sources of financial support and design awards for the most innovative of these projects, as listed on the webpage, together with the support offered through the Velocity entrepreneurship and Conrad BET Centre programs, and others.
I’ve always intended to write about some research work, but never find the time. However, here is a link to a write-up by one of our staff writers. And a picture of me with a couple of my graduate level (i.e. Masters) researchers.
Waterloo Engineering’s chemical engineering research gives manufacturer a global advantage.
Here is a story about one of our Chemical Engineering students, and some of his work term experiences in the petrochemical industry. It’s typical of the variety of things that our students do during their 6 workterms over the course of our program.
by Shannon Tigert. A version of this piece originally appeared in the Spring 2013, ed. 2 issue of the Inside sCo-op newsletter.
Brodie Germain (4A Chemical Engineering) spent two rewarding co-op work terms at Suncor Energy. With his first two co-op jobs completed elsewhere, he was hired for his third work term as an Environmental Health and Safety Intern at Suncor’s wastewater treatment plant at the Mississauga Lubricant Facility. In this position, Brodie sampled the water the plant was using to ensure it was within government regulations.
Brodie’s position in his subsequent term at Suncor was Technical Services Intern, a support role for different engineers in the department. Each engineer is responsible for a different section of the plant, and by assisting all of them Brodie gained a variety of experiences.
A major project of Brodie’s during this term was a management of change analysis involving a heat exchanger problem; fluids passed through tubes to be heated and cooled. One of the fluids was picking up too much heat, reaching dangerously high temperatures. Various concerns and issues needed to be addressed, but Brodie appreciated the challenge. That’s because he connected what he was learning with things he had already done in school, like hydraulic calculations, collecting drawings and data sheets, and using logical thinking. Doing this kind of work was “as relevant as it gets” to his engineering degree, says Brodie: “I was able to find my strengths and weaknesses while developing my communication skills and technical foundations. A solid technical skills foundation is the most important practical thing to have as an engineer.” Continue reading