The Vancouver Sun – Global environmental challenges require unprecedented teamwork among scientists
By Scott Simpson, Vancouver Sun
VANCOUVER — Bigger challenges need bigger solutions.
In an academic environment, that can mean pulling together a team of researchers dispersed across a campus, a country, or the entire world.
“If I’m able to solve the problem myself I shouldn’t be working on that problem, it would be too trivial,” University of Alberta researcher Sushanta Mitra recently remarked to a colleague.
Mitra, a professor of mechanical engineering, works on projects that address global challenges in the fields of medicine, energy, and the environment.
He is a director at the National Institute for Nanotechnology, one of the world’s largest nanotech labs. He’s one of the Canadian leads on a $30-million, five-year collaboration among 11 universities in Canada and India focusing on water quality, disease control and infrastructure known as IC-Impacts. As well, he’s the lead on a team of 15 researchers in Canada and the United States who are working through Carbon Management Canada to convert coal into natural gas without taking the coal out of the ground.
The IC-Impacts project, Mitra said, will boost Canada’s ability to participate in international research and engineering collaborations.
“The way things are evolving now is that the (research challenges) are becoming so complex that it’s almost impossible as an individual researcher to attack it,” Mitra said, adding that “there is no point” attempting to work in isolation on a project because budget-minded funding agencies such as Canada’s NSERC are loath to support duplicate efforts.
“Along with University of Alberta, researchers at University of British Columbia and University of Toronto are involved in the IC-Impacts project. UBC is the host school for Canada. Indian Institutes of Technology, autonomous engineering institutes dispersed around India, are also participating.
Researchers have not abandoned their desire to compete against one another, either locally or globally, but they’re using it constructively in collaborations, Mitra said.
“We compete, but this is the new paradigm — cooperative competition. Through collaboration, even though you are competing individually, I think you can tackle bigger problems,” Mitra said.
Mitra’s piece of IC-Impacts is water — including availability and treatment.
“This is a big problem, be it (in) Canada or elsewhere globally. It will be a problem in the next decades when you have eight to 10 billion people that the Earth has to support. This kind of global challenge, problem, has to be dealt with through this multi-pronged, multi-university collaboration approach.”
In India, the challenge is providing easy access to safe drinking water for hundreds of millions of people, including those in large population centres. More than 37 million Indians get sick each year from drinking contaminated water.
In Canada, the problem is reaching a smaller number of people living in remote areas. Roughly 5,000 Canadians get sick each year from drinking water contaminated with giardia, the world’s most common intestinal parasite. At any given time, about 1,400 boil water advisories are in place in Canadian cities, small towns, neighbourhoods, and even business establishments, plus about 100 advisories in First Nations communities.
At UAlberta, the IC-Impacts project involves 100 students and researchers. Across the entire collaboration, that climbs to 700.
Peter Wild of University of Victoria also leads a Carbon Management Canada project. It involves four universities including St. Francis Xavier, University of Toronto and University of Calgary. They’re developing underground sensors to monitor the stability of underground reservoirs where carbon dioxide would be stored after being collected at industrial facilities that emit large volumes of CO2, such as coal-fired generating plants.
As with Mitra’s work, it has global importance. Effective, permanent underground storage of carbon dioxide is one of the methods championed by the International Energy Agency for reducing the global warming effects of fossil fuel combustion. If it’s possible to sequester CO2 in underground reservoirs, typically in drained natural gas fields, then a major obstacle to future development of coal generation facilities will be overcome.
“When you start out and you look at a problem and you think about how you’re going to approach it you say ‘OK, well what’s the palette of expertise that we need to tackle this thing? What can I do, what my colleagues here at UVic do, what can people elsewhere do?’” Wild said. “Often the best way, if you can’t find the expertise locally, is to reach out.
“I can’t speak for all academics, but I think that if I had to make a list of the things I enjoy most about the job I’d have to say that the productive collaborations I’ve had over the years with academics here at my own institution or elsewhere would be pretty high on the list. It’s a lot of fun. It’s very stimulating to work with people from other disciplines and other perspectives.”
Wild is executive director of the Institute for Integrated Energy Systems at the University of Victoria. IESVic focuses on renewable energy research and, again, it’s an enterprise of global importance that has attracted international interest.
“We’ve got research collaborations with China. We’ve got research collaborations with Germany, Japan and Taiwan,” Wild said.
“The collaborations have different motivations. Sometimes it’s expertise, sometimes it’s facilities and equipment. If there are people who have unique equipment that is going to allow you to do some special things with your work that you haven’t been able to do before, then that’s a great motivator to get on a plane and make it happen.”
One of the world’s largest research organizations, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, recently struck an agreement with UAlberta to collaborate on research focusing on energy and environment.
Helmholtz, named for 19th-century scientific giant Hermann von Helmholtz, has 18 research centres in Germany and supports 33,000 scientists and staff on an annual budget that will exceed 3.7 billion euros in 2013. That includes 7,400 foreign scientists and 6,200 doctoral students.
Helmholtz focuses on large infrastructure properties, including particle accelerators, research vessels and aircraft. The majority of its funding is from the federal government.
The association maintains an international focus. It has research partners in Europe, North America, Asia and the Pacific Rim.
“Cooperation and networking with national and international partners from science and research, and especially from the universities and industry, are its key to producing outstanding research findings — more efficiently and quickly,” says a webpage representing Helmholtz’s international offices.
Helmholtz and University of Alberta in 2009 struck a partnership that sees the two institutions build a research collaboration that will eventually expand into six fields, starting with clean technology development in bitumen extraction and thermal coal combustion.
Typically, Helmholtz starts out with an administrative office — they’ve had them in Beijing and Moscow for decades — and then expands into research partnerships. At UAlberta, they established a research partnership first.
“Consider some of the natural resources which are in Alberta as well as the lignite and coal mining operations where Germany is still very active,” Stefan Scherer, managing director of the Helmholtz Alberta Initiative, said. Germany “has learned a lot over the last decade especially after unification and inheriting lignite mines in the east part of Germany.”
Since the initial partnership, other researchers in other disciplines at the institutions including medicine have expressed an interest in similar relationships.
“The University of Alberta has some internationally recognized expertise in infectious disease research. We are just in the process of setting up a project in infectious disease (research) as well,” Scherer said. “This is a really nice development nobody was seeing when they started on energy and environment to bring them together.”
Anne Naeth, a theme lead in the Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative, just set up the Land Reclamation International Graduate School at UAlberta, focusing on restoration and recovery of land disturbed by human use. That could mean an open pit mine, a pipeline, or even a road.
Students from GeoForshungsZentrum (GFZ) in Potsdam, Germany, are coming to her graduate school, and the German research foundation is developing a federally funded graduate school which UAlberta students will be able to attend.
“It’s a really nice example of how the ball has been played back and forth and there is some evidence and track of success where something has been done. It’s more than just an idea on PowerPoint,” Scherer said.
Naeth began researching reclamation in the mid-1980s, looking at everything from open pit mines and pipelines to roads and contaminated or abandoned lands.
“We really understand a whole lot more about what we need to do to reclaim areas,” Naeth said. “Just understanding how to build soils may not seem like a big thing but it is when you’re working with areas like (open pit) mines where all of the soil has been completely destroyed.
“There is technology associated with that. In essence, it’s the technology associated with rebuilding that whole ecosystem all the way from the soil up.”
But while a lot of that work involves science, the biggest challenge is working out how to piece the land back together after a disturbance.
“Most of us have research liaisons with people around the world. I, for example, work with people in the U.K., in Germany, in Australia, New Zealand, the United States. There’s a lot of sharing of information — which means you’re not simply developing something and then going onto the next thing. There’s a whole network of sharing.”
Working with Helmholtz, she said, is “just a more formal and larger scale liaison than what we had before. There’s a sharing of funds, a sharing of ideas. Putting it in a nutshell, the more people who are working on a problem, the more likely you are to find a solution — particularly if you are working together and not off in your own little silos.”
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