Innovative research at the U of R
Three projects that are pushing boundaries
Understanding the universe on a fundamental level
U of R researchers lend a hand in massive global experiment
The world of science is driven by the pursuit of knowledge and the expansion of mankind’s understanding of the universe. The Tokai to Kamoika (T2K) experiment, a particle-acceleration test based out of Japan, is one of the most promising research endeavours in the world of physics today.
The world-renowned experiment involves firing beams of sub-atomic particles underground across Japan 256 kilometres into two light-detection devices, which record the various behaviours of the particles while in transit.
The experiment is a massive undertaking and has become a worldwide collaboration. Countries such as Canada, Italy, Germany, the United States, Russia and Spain are all pooling their scientific resources together. T2K is a project that not only provides scientists with a better understanding of the universe, but also has the spillover bonus of accelerating the growth of several technological developments and providing a launching pad for the careers of several young scientists.
“The Canadian group in this collaboration is quite big,” Dr. Edward Mathie told the Carillon in a recent interview. “It might be the third-biggest contingent in the experiment.”
Mathie has been with the U of R’s physics department since 1984 and, as he put it, the T2K experiment is about understanding how the universe is built on a fundamental level.
“Atoms, we understand, are comprised of the nuclei and the electrons around the nuclei,” he said. “The nuclei themselves are comprised of protons and neutrons. But, when you delve deeper into what makes things tick within the nucleus of all atoms, then you open the door to the world of sub-atomic physics.
“So, at the fundamental level, we look for the smallest building blocks in nature and, from there, we can understand more about the larger pieces above.”
The T2K experiment revolves around the study of neutrinos, miniscule particles created as the result of radioactive decay or nuclear reactions. These elementary particles, meaning they are not made of smaller fragments, come on three types or “flavours”. Neutrinos also have a neutral electric charge, meaning they can pass through normal matter unaffected – nearly 65 billion neutrinos pass through the earth every second.
As neutrinos make their way from the sun to the earth, they go through what is called neutrino oscillation, where they change from one type of neutrino to another. Combine this with the neutrino’s frustrating ability to seemingly pass through matter and studying the particle is a toilsome task.
“In order for us to understand neutrinos very well, it’s hard to wait on the number of particles that you can detect in nature, because they are so weakly interacting,” Mathie explained. “So, the T2K experiment utilizes an accelerator to produce [a variety of particles that eventually decay into] two neutrinos. So, if we have an accelerator with enough power, we can produce a larger number of neutrinos than we see in the natural environment."
The accelerator breaks down into three pieces: the accelerator, the near detector and the Super-Kamiokande detector. The neutrinos travel through nearly the entire width of Japan before reaching the final detection device.
Canada’s involvement in the project, including the team at the U of R, is working on components of the near detector, the intermittent detector between the accelerator and the Super-Kamiokande detector. The near detector is roughly the size of a two-story town house.
Several parts of Canada, including B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario are all coming together to create little bits and pieces of the near detector. The pieces are then assembled in Vancouver before being shipped to Japan.
“Our job here is Regina is to work on the optical systems for the Fine-Grained Detectors,” Mathie explained.
Mathie and his team create plastic optical rods, which capture the light produced in the rare instance when a neutrino has a charged reaction with another particle. Optical fibres placed inside the rods then convert the light to an electric signal.
“The fibres then absorb the light created by the plastic rods,” Mathie said. “And then the fibre reemits it as a different wavelength of light and that light passes through the fibre in the same way we use fibres to light and transmit signals in communications.”
After the light is captured, it is transmitted down to a detection device and voila, the T2K team can now detect one of the smallest particles known to exist – small enough to pass through most matter uncontested.
In addition to the obvious benefit of learning about the fundamental principles of the universe’s construction, the T2K experiment has the added benefit of jump-starting the development of new technologies.
“There is a subtle relationship between fundamental research and applied research,” Mathie explained. “In fundamental research, because we are asking questions at the forefront or ‘research horizon’ as we call it, we are doing things people have never done. We are doing things for the very first time, feeling our way over that research horizon. And in doing that, we create demands on industry to help us achieve these goals. We are often taking industry down paths it would have never gone down for the fundamental curiosity alone.”
Although it is impossible to tell where the T2K experiment will lead industry in the future, T2K has demanded incredibly high amounts of computing, communications power and light detection devices. According to Mathie, new technologies need to be created to fulfil these demands, leaving the door open for industry to use the technology to develop devices for commercial sale. In the wake of T2K’s pursuit of curiosity, new technologies could emerge that would have otherwise gone unexplored.
“Industry also needs a talent pool to draw from,” Mathie said. “Experiments like this capture students imagination, lead them to undertake the very difficult graduate school in physics for example and it brings them onto a playing field were some of them might choose to go to industry and others might choose to stay in curiosity-driven research. But, without the curiosity-driven research, the talent pool would not be there.”
While providing an impetus for technological advancement and inspiring young minds, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, the T2K experiment is about one thing: expanding human knowledge. The project is using some of the best minds in physics from around the world – and it’s a piece of history that Canada, and the U of R, is proud to be a part of.
Viable zero-emissions energy source
Research into hydrogen production could revolutionize making energy
At a time when global apprehension about climate change is still a pressing issue, a research team at the University of Regina is currently working on a way to produce clean, efficient hydrogen power in an unprecedented way. The Hydrogen Production Pilot Plant Project (FFPF) is a 2.7-million dollar, government-funded, research project to help develop a revolutionary way of creating energy.
The issue of clean and efficient power sources has been a topic of debate for decades. Burning fossil fuels bombards the air with toxic CO2. Nuclear power is efficient and clean, but the potential doom it can rain on harbouring communities makes it a struggle to implement.
Hydrogen production is another solution to this problem. This emerging source of energy production has the potential to be one of the cleanest energy sources possible, however, it is not without its own shortcomings. Traditionally hydrogen production of the past has had to fight to maintain balance between being a clean source of energy, or an efficient one. Some methods require specific geographical conditions, others work well but produce CO2 emissions that negate the clean energy benefits and others are expensive.
U of R doctors Raphael Idem, Hussameldin Ibrahim and Ataullah Khan are working on a way for proponents of hydrogen production to have their cake and eat it too.
“Our technology provides a low cost/low energy hydrogen production process for a wide range of applications and, at the same time, contributes toward CO2 and CH4 reduction in the atmosphere.,” Husssameldin Ibrahim told the Carillon in a recent interview. “Also, our technology works by converting waste into hydrogen, which is a valuable product that’s used in many industrial applications.”
Ibrahim has been working in the U of R’s engineering department since Aug. 1 of last year. His colleagues and him have been commissioned to create a clean, efficient way to produce hydrogen as an energy source and the technology is encouraging.
“This breakthrough technology dramatically reduces the energy cost of hydrogen production, making the plants both economic and scalable,” he said. “Small-scale, feed- and process-flexible hydrogen production represents a tremendous step forward in making hydrogen, considered to be the ideal clean-burning fuel available as a primary energy source.”
In order for hydrogen to be used as an energy source, it needs to be separated from substances, such as fossil fuels, which are known as “hydrogen carriers”. Currently, hydrogen production facilities are not only large in scale, but are specific in the type of feed that they are capable of converting.
“Our hydrogen plant design uses a unique catalyst that works with virtually any hydrogen carrier as a feed source,” Ibrahim explained. “Using a catalyst also reduces the amount of heat required to convert the hydrocarbon into hydrogen since, like any catalyst, it does part of the work that normally requires heat or electricity. This makes the process more efficient, which both reduces the cost of hydrogen production and enables the plants to be built on a smaller scale.”
The design uses a nickel-based catalyst to convert any potential feedstock into four compounds: Carbon monoxide, hydrogen, natural gas and carbon dioxide. The compounds are then moved to another chamber called the “catalytic membrane reactor”, water is added and the reactor spits out CO2 and hydrogen. The hydrogen is then used as a clean energy source and the CO2 is recycled back into the reactor to be converted into more hydrogen.
“Our unique process design actually utilizes CO2 in the reformation process,” Ibrahim said while explaining how the production plant worked. “The membrane reactor effectively separates the hydrogen and the CO2. After that, a portion of the CO2 is recycled back into the first stage, while the remainder is collected and sent for utilization in a number of end uses.”
The result is a low-energy cost, highly- efficient, clean energy source – zero carbon emissions. In addition, the plant design allows it to be built on small or large scales.
“This will enable plants to be built large enough to supply hydrogen for heating, transportation and electricity in small or large communities, or built small enough for single facilities or complexes like airports or industrial plants,” Ibrahim said. “The utilization of local feedstocks will support local agricultural sectors and reduce municipal waste, while creating many new local industries. It will also enable a transition to more distributed, smaller-scale power production.”
Although Ibrahim admits the technology could be up to a decade away from commercial implementation, its potential to revolutionize the way we create energy is captivating. An efficient, clean, economic energy source may only be a decade away.
In addition to promising research ventures in physics and engineering, the University of Regina’s chemistry department is also conducting fundamental research in pesticide transportation which could lay the groundwork for important studies in the future, as well as provide important knowledge about pesticide control.
Since Aug. 10 , Renata Raina and her team of graduate students have been monitoring the way hundreds of pesticides travel through the atmosphere. They have received just over $160,000 in funding from the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to conduct their research over five years.
“Pesticide research is actually very expensive to do,” said Raina, who has been part of the U of R’s chemistry department since 2002. “Things like chemical analysis are very expensive to do and, without the research grant, it’s just not possible to do it.”
The research team travels around the country to gather samples of pesticides that have, in some cases, travelled thousands of miles from where they were originally intended for use. According to Raina, understanding their potential to spread around the country is key to understanding which pesticides are safe to use and what needs to be set aside.
“Pesticides have both health effects and environmental effects,” Raina said. “We need to know how chemicals move in the atmosphere and how they are transformed. Sometimes pesticides degrade in the atmosphere and become more toxic chemicals. Some of these chemicals can travel large distance. They could move from an area where they were meant to be applied for something like crop protection, to a region that is much more sensitive, such as an area where a lot of people live.”
“We try not to focus as much on the local influences,” Raina explained. “We don’t particularly want a site that’s heavily influenced by the usage of pesticides, because that will only help us identify the local issue and we are more concerned with things on a global scale.”
There are regulations on what pesticides farmers can use in their environments, but as Raina points out, there is very little consideration for how these chemicals could move in the atmosphere and influence other territory.
“It’s not that we want to ban all pesticides,” she explained. “We want to make their management better, because they are regulated, but there is no data on how they behave in the environment. Environments are highly variable and chemicals react differently depending on the type of atmosphere.”
The idea of the study is to observe how these chemicals behave and hopefully lay the bricks for more intelligent, safer regulation of the more than 500 pesticides approved for use in Canada.
Raina hopes her work could provide a foundation for further studies on the actual pesticides themselves and give future researchers a starting point while conducting studies on issues, such as the carcinogenic effects of pesticides, environmental impacts and various others.
“Hopefully, this research will support other people’s endeavours,” Raina said. “Studies on things like the cancerous effects of a chemical take a long time to do. So, first we have to prove those chemicals are in the environment and the levels in that environment are something to be concerned about.”
But, for the moment, Raina and her team will have to continue to simply keep laying the groundwork. Working one day at a time, one step closer to safer pesticide regulation and a better understanding of the chemicals we use on food everyday.