As part of its examination of environmental engineering, Engineering Dimensions sought out some frontline practitioners to find out what they’re doing in the field, and their views on what may be in store for this all-important but not easily understood discipline.
HELPING BUSINESSES GAIN A SUSTAINABILITY EDGE
As more and more companies in Canada seek to operate sustainably, many are drawing on the considerable expertise and insights of environmental engineer Mike Gerbis, P.Eng.
A 25-year practitioner in the field, Gerbis helps companies reduce harmful emissions, cut down on their waste and be more energy efficient—all in ways that are cost effective and can increase profitability. The company he leads, The Delphi Group, provides large- and medium-sized businesses with support in sustainability strategy development, policy analysis and environmental risk management. Featuring offices in Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary and Victoria with 20 staff and 40 associates, Delphi has served major brands in Canada, such as Canadian Tire, RBC, Loblaws, CN and McDonald’s.
“Climate-friendly is about more than just risk mitigation,“ says Gerbis. “The trend of companies becoming more responsible and seeing the benefits to their market share, brand and profitability has significantly increased opportunities for firms like ours.”
In the late 1980s, while Gerbis was a chemical engineering undergraduate at Queen’s University, a geography professor exposed him to the possibility of addressing climate change in a business-friendly way. Afterward, he completed a master’s degree in environmental engineering at McMaster University, and his thesis project involved helping a local furniture maker identify how to reduce its waste, create a safer work environment and save money. The experience made clear to Gerbis the kind of positive social, environmental and business impact he could make as an environmental engineer. After running his own engineering consulting firm for five years, he joined Delphi in 1997 as its director of environmental technology and services and has been its CEO since 2006.
One way Delphi helps companies go green is through Trident, its customizable tracking and forecasting tool that enables organizations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and energy use at the lowest possible cost. The tool creates easy-to-understand and visually appealing reports that quantify the organization’s greenhouse gas emissions, energy use and associated costs. It also allows for analyzing business-as-usual and compliance scenarios, and identifying business processes and technologies to operate more sustainably.
“Companies are trying to make decisions that make financial sense, and at the same time, deal with climate change. This offers a way for them to put investments into reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a way that minimizes their costs and enhances their profitability,” says Gerbis, noting that some Trident users have decreased their emissions by as much as 20 per cent.
Gerbis views his work as fulfilling his professional responsibility to protect the public interest—in his case, by helping companies reduce their environmental impact while enhancing their profitability. Outside of Delphi, he has co-founded two environmental non-profits, volunteers for an association promoting good air quality, and regularly speaks about sustainability to youth and business leaders across Canada.
“I think engineers can play a significant role in tackling issues such as climate change and advancing sustainable energy,” Gerbis says. “Many engineers are now CEOs or business managers, and many are innovators, so we have the capacity to understand these issues in a technical way and come up with solutions that make good sense for business and for the planet.”
TESTING THE WATERS
When it comes to investigating how human activities pollute our water supplies, Jana Levison, PhD, EIT, is making some waves.
The University of Guelph researcher is examining the impact of agricultural activity on aquifers. Containing freshwater in the form of groundwater that can be accessed by wells, aquifers are a primary source of drinking water for a third of Canada’s population. However, the increasing use of fertilizers and pesticides by farms to increase crop yields may be leaching chemicals into aquifers at levels that make groundwater unsafe to drink.
What’s unique about Levison’s approach is she is among the first researchers to use ocean monitoring technology to study groundwater contamination, and it’s providing much more detailed results.
“Normally, we would pump a well once a month or a few times a year, collect samples and send them to the lab for testing,” says Levison, an assistant professor in the university’s School of Engineering. “Now, we have sensors that can measure water contaminants in more detail over a longer time period, so we’re getting a better picture of what’s happening below the surface.”
In 2014 and 2015, sensors were placed inside multiple wells in southern Ontario where there are sandy aquifers to monitor nitrate levels, and how they fluctuated in quantity and location according to changes in precipitation. While the findings are still confidential until the study publishes, Levison says they reflect a connection between land activity and nitrate concentrations in aquifers, adding that consumption of water with excessive nitrates can cause health problems, especially in babies. She says the detailed data will help with developing predictive numerical models that can be used to investigate the impact of climate change on contaminant transport in groundwater.
Environmental and water resources engineering was a natural career choice for Levison, who grew up on a dairy and horse farm near Lake Simcoe, and loved exploring the outdoors. At age 11, she visited family in Zimbabwe and observed women carrying jugs of water across great distances to bring to their families, and the experience left a lasting impression about the importance of groundwater. She went on to study the topic at Queen’s University, first in a course during her civil environmental engineering degree, and then during her PhD in civil engineering, for which she specialized in hydrogeology.
Soon after completing her doctorate, Levison spent two years at PEO’s (now discontinued) Ontario Centre for Engineering and Public Policy, which worked to raise the profile of the engineering profession and conducted research in areas affected by engineering. Serving first as a junior fellow and then as its acting executive director, Levison focused on encouraging engineers to participate in public policy discussions relating to the profession.
Levison has also worked on drinking water protection for the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority in Kingston, Ontario. Currently, she is an associate editor for Hydrogeology Journal, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the International Association of Hydrogeologists.
“I enjoy the technical aspects of what I do, but I also enjoy that there is lot of practicality to it, because water is essential to life, so we need to protect it as best we can. Thinking about that keeps the work interesting.”
MAKING THE CASE FOR MICROWAVING METALS
To determine how to make mining more sustainable, Erin Bobicki, PhD, P.Eng., has used some out-of-the-box thinking—but her solution is decidedly in a box.
The University of Toronto researcher’s solution for using less energy during mineral processing is preheating rocks with microwaves. Essentially, the electromagnetic radiation produced by microwaves help to more efficiently separate valuable minerals from undesirable material in ore by reacting with the minerals’ dielectric and magnetic properties. It’s a discovery Bobicki made as a PhD student at the University of Alberta: In studying how to store carbon in ultramafic rocks for climate change mediation, she tested her ideas by literally putting rocks in a standard kitchen microwave.
“I was working with a mineral called serpentine, which can react with CO2 to form magnesium carbonate, but on geological time. One way to speed up the reactivity is heat treatment, so I thought of using the microwave in my lab. It turns out you can do neat things when you microwave serpentine,” say Bobicki, an assistant professor in the departments of materials science and engineering, and chemical engineering and applied chemistry, who’s also affiliated with the university’s Lassonde Institute of Mining.
What Bobicki learned from her experiments is that microwaving ores can not only change the mineral composition, but also promote cracks at the boundaries between high-value minerals and commercially valueless material. These cracks make it easier to then liberate minerals during the process of comminution—breaking up huge slabs of rock into tiny particles—and separate minerals during froth flotation, and so ultimately less energy is required. Currently, about 1 per cent of energy used during comminution goes to breaking up rock, while the rest is lost to noise, heat and friction. Conversely, microwaves can convert electric energy with efficiencies of up to 80 per cent.
“The industry tends to use old technologies that do not efficiently concentrate energy into particle breakage,” says Bobicki, who observed these processes first-hand when she worked for three years as a metallurgist at Brazilian mining company Vale. “Microwaves can significantly enhance the efficiency of grinding so that less energy is used in the process.”
Much of Bobicki’s current research involves studying the microwave properties of minerals like pyrrhotite, magnetite, olivenite and serpentine. She is also examining other ways to make mineral processing more sustainable, like reducing water use, increasing the use of recycled water, using salt water instead of fresh water (which is scarce in many areas), and extracting valuable minerals from tailings. For Bobicki, deeply investigating these complex technical matters that could positively transform the mining sector is inherently rewarding. She also enjoys inspiring students to become problem-solvers in the field, and keeping her finger on the pulse of a sector that fascinates her.
With mining companies facing many pressures to be more sustainable, including rising energy costs, increasingly lower-grade ores, limited water resources, declining metal prices, global competition and greater public demand for environmentally respectful business practices, Bobicki expects her research will become increasingly relevant.
“The mining industry likes to say it is innovative, but it is really slow to adopt new technology,” she says. “It needs to go beyond making incremental change and take some risks so that it can reduce its ecological footprint.”
ADVANCING CLEAN ENERGY IN ONTARIO
Harnessing electricity in Ontario involves taking great care to operate sustainably, and among those we can thank for that effort is Nicolas Rutikanga, EIT.
An environmental advisor with Ontario Power Generation (OPG), Rutikanga helps the company fulfill its goal to minimize its environmental footprint. His work involves developing, implementing and monitoring the company’s environmental management system, and identifying ways to improve it. One of several environmental advisors at OPG, Rutikanga may be involved in interpreting environmental legislation, correcting environmental performance issues and building productive relationships with environmental regulators.
“The environmental considerations of any task or project are at the centre of the work process, from conception of a product, to the decommissioning, and the management of impacts after decommissioning,” Rutikanga says.
Rutikanga is based at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Bowmanville, ON, where he provides guidance on ensuring the site’s water and air emissions comply with provincial environmental regulations and best operating practices. He is also responsible for securing environmental approvals for various work activities from the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change.
His work often involves engaging in technical problem solving with other types of engineers at the company, including civil, mechanical and electrical engineers.
This is Rutikanga’s first formal job as an engineering intern since he immigrated in 2012 to Canada from his home country of Rwanda, where he completed a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering and environmental technology at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. He completed the University of Toronto’s Licensing International Engineers into the Profession Program in 2014, and joined OPG in February 2015, first as an intern, and then as a management and professional trainee, before starting his current role last November.
The process of producing electricity has always fascinated Rutikanga. He says in courses he took on electricity, it was “liberating” to learn about harnessing the existing potential energy of moving electrons. He’s just as jazzed about new innovations for producing electricity in more eco-friendly ways, and says at OPG, there is a constant flow of new ideas and projects for reducing carbon emissions, such as promoting the use of electric vehicles, restoring environmental habitats, using technology to preserve biodiversity, and reducing and recycling wastes. He is also encouraged by OPG’s collaboration on environmental projects with various conservation groups, which have included the Bruce Trail Conservancy, Earth Rangers and the Toronto Wildlife Centre.
“OPG’s environment group has a wide range of partners that all aim at protecting the environment,” Rutikanga says, adding that his team members also regularly consult with organizations from other industries to stay current on sustainable practices. “Sharing experiences among practitioners and partners really helps improve the quality of environmental protection on a regular basis.”
As Rutikanga progresses in his career at OPG, he plans to learn more about the company’s work in the areas of renewable energy, including wind and solar. Meanwhile, he says he’s proud to help OPG sustainably generate nuclear energy, which, since it produces virtually no carbon dioxide or air pollution, is one of the cleanest sources of electricity.
Says Rutikanga: “Managing natural resources is crucial for human survival, and this can’t be achieved without closely monitoring the environmental aspects that are associated with business decisions.”