Dec. 11, 2019

Back to the future

Looking at achievements over the last decade shows Schulich is helping to lead us into a better world

To call it a decade of discovery wouldn’t miss the mark at all  – indeed, the “tens” were a time of enterprise, enthusiasm and some very impressive “eureka!” moments at the Schulich School of Engineering.

Reaching back to a year when the first computer tablets appeared and analogue television broadcasts finally went dark, the past ten years have been a remarkable time for the University of Calgary’s engineering faculty, with advancements in every discipline under the iron ring.

As the calendar switches over to the 2020s, it’s a perfect chance to look back on some highlights from the past ten years, Schulich style.

 

  1. CARBON CAPTURE: Reducing the impact of greenhouse gases is a goal shared by many researchers at UCalgary, and in the engineering faculty you’ll find plenty of laboratories devoted to a cleaner future. Dr. Mina Zarabian PhD and Dr.  Pedro Pereira Almao PhD made international headlines in 2019 with their method of turning greenhouse gases into valuable carbon nanofibres. "This is a process that turns natural gas and CO2, carbon dioxide, both known as greenhouse gases, into solid carbon nanofibres which can be sold in a brick or powder for a lot of industries that utilize them," Zarabian told reporters.

  2. BRAIN CHIPS: A decade has passed since UCalgary’s Dr. Naweed Syed, PhD became the first scientist to connect brain cells to a silicon chip, creating the world's first neurochip. Engineering researchers at Schulich have taken the idea and pushed it to new levels as a “lab on a chip”. Their work is changing the future for patients with brain trauma and disorders like epilepsy, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. 

  3. HYDROGEN HOPE: The engineering team of Dr. Ian Gates, PhD, made headlines around the world for taking a very novel approach to using Alberta’s oilsands for energy, while leaving the oil underground. Gates and his team discovered a method capable of extracting hydrogen from underground resources like oilsands deposits while leaving the carbon emissions it produces below the surface. "What this is about is how do we make use of oil reservoirs — or even gas reservoirs — and get pure, clean energy out of it,” said Gates.

  4. BONE BREAKTHROUGH: A significant advancement in the understanding and prevention of osteoporosis in both women and men came after Dr. Steven Boyd, PhD and Dr. David Hanley, MD, uncovered key differences in the way women and men lose bone strength and end up suffering from osteoporosis. Boyd, a biomedical engineer, said the differences are vital to care. "It's like having two houses that contain the same number of bricks," explained Boyd. "They can have different strengths depending on how those bricks are arranged."

  5. IN VOTES WE TRUST: Controversy over “hanging chads” and other election irregularities led a team of Schulich engineering students to create an open software database that logs blocks of data that cannot be altered once recorded, as well as leaving an open data trail for those auditing the information to see where and when new information was logged. "I was 21 at the time and voting in my first federal election, and I thought, 'Wow, I'm using paper ballots still,'" said team lead Jose Herrera.

  6. GEOMATICS SAVE THE DAY: The department of Geomatics Engineering at UCalgary got some world-wide recognition in 2018, after a soccer team of 12 boys and their coach were successfully saved from a flooded Thailand cave system. Rescuers turned to a geospacial mapping company with deep UCalgary connections for help navigating the caves. Ivan Maddox, an executive vice-president of Intermap and a Schulich graduate, said geomatics helped save the day. "The University of Calgary is a world leader in geomatics engineering," said Maddox. "The U of C doesn't just lead the geomatic engineering industry, it defines the industry on a global scale.”

  7. EMERGENCY MEDIA: Painstaking analysis of nearly 70,000 tweets sent out by evacuees escaping the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016 forever changed the way emergency agencies use smartphone emergency apps, after Schulich researchers found the system lacking. “We found that up to 80 per cent of the features people are looking for aren’t accommodated right now,” said Maleknaz Nayebi, lead researcher and PhD candidate.

  8. LET THERE BE LIGHT: Using a micro-hydroelectric system to provide and regulate electricity, two engineering professors found a way to bring light to remote areas of the world, including isolated villages in Nepal and Ethiopia. Dr. Ed Nowicki, PhD and Dr. David Wood PhD, even found a way to use any excess power generated to heat water in the village homes. “It can be used for things like powering computers at schools. It can be used to develop local craft industries. It means their kids or their grandkids can study properly because they have good light," said Wood.

  9. BRIDGE THE GAP: As well as designing cheaper, stronger bridges that can last decades longer than current structures, civil engineering researchers like Dr. Mamdouh El-Badry PhD are looking at continuous monitoring techniques so that any flaws or weaknesses in infrastructure can be immediately caught and fixed. “I believe continuous inspection is important,” says El-Badry. “There are structural health monitoring techniques that can allow for continuous monitoring of the behaviour of bridges and buildings.”

  10. ROBOTS TO THE RESCUE: In the very near future, the first responders in disasters like fires, earthquakes and terrorist attacks won't be people, but independent robots capable of searching, using tools, and making decisions as their surrounding change. Schulich is a leader in this research, and Dr. Alex Ramirez-Serrano, PhD. is one of the researchers at the cutting edge of Search and Rescue (SAR) robot engineering. "Enhanced AI will enable robots to move themselves throughout their operating environment with minimal human assistance and to self-adapt in novel and groundbreaking ways," he says.