A strategic investment

Wednesday February 15, 2017

By Chris Armes, Communications Officer

Queen’s researchers receive NSERC funding to support Arctic, water purification research. 

Two Queen’s faculty members have received a combined $1.086 million  through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Strategic Partnership Grants for Programs. These three-year grants, which support collaborative research between academics and industry partners, come in support of two separate projects – one aimed at protecting Canada’s Arctic ecosystem, another aimed at developing new water purification technology.

“Queen’s researchers are consistently on the leading-edge of their fields, making discoveries with the capacity to enhance Canadian society, the economy and the environment,” says John Fisher, Acting Vice-Principal (Research). “Funding, such as the NSERC grants announced today, goes a long way towards increasing research activity, furthering collaborations and enhancing priority research areas.”

While much of the research on Arctic climate change focuses on the nature of the change, biology professor Vicki Friesen intends to use state of the art genomic technology to take a much more in-depth look at how climate change affects seabird species in the region. As dominant apex predators, seabirds are a key component of the Arctic ecosystem and the culture of Canada’s northern Indigenous peoples, but are threatened by climate and industrial factors. She has been awarded a three-year, $534,000 NSERC Strategic Grant for Projects to support her research.

“There are a number of major colonies of these seabirds spread through the Arctic, though many of them in close proximity to newly-available shipping lanes and resource extraction sites,” says Dr. Friesen. “These are major colonies, with hundreds of thousands of birds. A spill or other disaster could wipe out huge portions of the populations of these birds, so they’re very vulnerable. Our research will look at the adaptations developed by birds in these colonies and determine their capacity to adapt to their changing environment.”

Dr. Friesen and her colleagues – Marie-Josee Fortin (Toronto),  Kyle Elliott (McGill), and Greg Robertson and Grant Gilchrist (Environment and Climate Change Canada) – will use genomic, behavioural and ecological data to determine how seven key seabird species are impacted by climate change as well as their capacity to adapt. Working with Environment Canada, these data will provide estimates of the bird’s populations and sensitivities. The researchers will also be able to compare the adaptations found in various populations with the physical characteristics of their environment – providing insight on areas and groups that could be most severely impacted. Dr. Friesen says that the advances in genomic screening have allowed for much greater insight into adaptive potential than previous methods would have allowed.

“With the new genomic techniques, we can do a lot more that we couldn’t do previously,” she explains. “In the past we used genetic markers that are really useful in many ways, but don’t give you the full picture, especially with respect to how well a species can adapt. With genomics, now we can get at the genes related to adaptation.”

Building off his previous successful work, developing a means to purify industrial wastewater, chemistry professor Philip Jessop has been awarded a three-year, $552,740 grant to develop a low-energy process to purify agricultural and municipal wastewater to make it potable. Similar to his industrial treatment process, the proposed method would use captured energy from waste heat emissions to power the process.

“At present, industrial methods to produce drinking water from sea water or agricultural waste water are very costly – both in energy and in dollars,” explains Dr. Jessop, who holds the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Green Chemistry. “In our process you can use waste heat – such as the energy lost as heat from a factory or industrial plant - as the primary energy source for our process instead of electricity. For electricity, you will pay top dollar. If you can use waste heat, you may wind up using the same amount of energy, but in terms of dollars spent you’re using a lot less.”

Dr. Jessop is collaborating with GreenCentre, Forward Water, Hatch and Kingston Utilities – as well as professors Michael Cunningham (Chemical Engineering) and Pascale Champagne (Civil Engineering) – to develop the technology for commercial use. He says the biggest challenge in developing the purification technology – apart from the initial investment necessary to take the concept from the lab to real-world application – is the added complexity in meeting the more stringent standards for drinking water.

“This new grant provides funding for a radical redesign of the core technology, so it will have this added capability to take water that is less heavily polluted – such as sea water or municipal wastewater – and make it safe for drinking,” he says.

The goal of NSERC’s Strategic Partnership Grants is to increase research and training in targeted areas that could enhance Canada’s economy, society and/or environment within the next 10 years. Research and training under these grants must be conducted through a partnership between academic researchers and industry or government organizations. Grants were awarded for projects in the fields of advanced manufacturing, environment and agriculture, information and communications technology, and natural resources and energy.

For more information, please visit the website.