The S-WORD: Defining Sustainability


Today, people argue, the power of the word ‘sustainability’ has been diluted due to overuse. What began as a noble ideal has been reduced to a mere buzzword. We sat down with some of our professors to understand how ‘sustainability’ is more than hype for them and their research.


Professor I. Daniel Posen
Research Focus: Providing system-scale environmental sustainability analysis for policy development

Large-scale systems are inherently complex. When holistically evaluating the ‘sustainability’ of a system a broad range of environmental, societal and economic metrics compound the matter. Naturally, a professor with such a research focus has a complicated relationship with the word ‘sustainability’. Riddled with over-hyped products, under-delivering theories and overall ‘greenwashing’, Professor Posen believes the discourse is weak.  He particularly notices the current lack of numerical definition.

Posen’s research exists at the intersection of engineering, environmental science, economics and public policy. His cross-discipline approach engenders a complete evaluation of all ‘sustainability’ efforts. It is with this integrated analysis that Professor Posen seeks to inform future system designs yielding greener outcomes.

Success in his quantitative analysis for policy development depends on capturing all factors, inputs and circumstances. The accuracy and availability of data, the consistency of modelling efforts across fields and the incorporation of nascent technologies are some challenges he must address. The variables are numerous, nuanced and involve advanced statistical analysis. Iterations are necessary to provide confidence ranges and uncertainty measurements to help craft policies.

Appropriately, Posen views ‘sustainability’ through a system-wide lens, considering the triple-bottom line inclusive of social, ecological and financial effects. He believes to operationalize ‘sustainability’ it must be reduced to measurable properties. Developing empirical tools to assess current levels, magnitude changes and confidence levels are all integral points in sustainability’s definition. Once these methodologies are in place, it is important to tell the data’s story accurately and without bias mobilizing policy makers driving real change.

With recent developments of the pan-Canadian climate framework addressing the country’s 2030 emissions reduction targets, Posen’s research plays an essential tool for government. Most recently, in conjunction with Professor Heather MacLean and a charitable environmental organization called Pollution Probe, Professor Posen is working on a white paper providing analysis to the Government of Ontario. The paper will provide guidance in provincial emissions from indirect land use change and carbon accounting for biofuels as part of both Ontario Renewable Fuel Standard and Canada’s Clean Fuel Standard.

“It is necessary to remember that though governments can shift and mandate new targets, magnitudes of change in one area will have consequences in another,” Posen says. These market-rebound and indirect effects are an important consideration in Professor Posen’s research.

“It is not as simple as implementing biofuels to reduce green house gases (GHG),” says Posen. According to the professor when addressing GHG mitigation strategies, policy makers need to consider the totality of costs and benefits associated with the proposed protocols. If a food production crop is replaced with a bio-fuel-bound crop, this change will have implications not only in the energy sector but also for world hunger and food scarcity problems. Once bio-fuel crops are harvested, refining the biomass consumes energy, processing will affect air quality and the infrastructure needed to support distribution efforts requires investment. These are only a sampling of considerations to address when evaluating and selecting among the competing uses for biomass and prioritizing GHG mitigation strategies.

Other examples of sustainability analysis issues include prioritizing certain sectors before others, market price fluctuations and accounting for technologies that currently do not exist. New developments create alternative scenarios. Policy makers forge new directions with each new regulation. Some directions will lead to fruitful and tangible results while others will lead to dead ends. Confounding the issue, attributing the origins of outcomes is difficult to disentangle empirically. Posen is working to identify new, precise measurement modelling to improve path forecasting.

Professor Posen’s previous work focused on large-scale systems at global and national levels. He is currently looking to address city-scale systems. As global leaders discuss and stipulate new green targets and frameworks, cities have an important role in implementing and driving their success.

“Often cities do not have an accurate picture of their current emission levels, for example. It proves difficult to identify necessary fundamental policy changes without data to inform the direction,” says Posen. “With increased capacity to collect, analyze and disseminate crucial data points, local officials can make substantial changes that benefit both the short and long run sustainability of cities.”

Professor Tamer El-Diraby
RESEARCH FOCUS: Construction management for societal and corporate changes

Professor El-Diraby agrees the conversation around ‘sustainability’ needs to be more than a passing fad. He notes, buzzword or not, ‘sustainability’ promotes positive results. “It is just a given nowadays,” he remarks. “Most governments, businesses and our society as a whole accept and are prioritizing its implications.”

El-Diraby notes his school-age children studying sciences are now learning through a lens of ‘sustainability’. The generational expectation for sustainable efforts is non-negotiable. Despite its hashtag status, he believes there is a general movement from generic thoughts to actionable policies and programs for energy conservation and climate change. “While we may be bored with its use, caring about these issues is the result of profound belief in ‘sustainability’,” says El-Diraby. The Professor warns that not all who use the term have noble intentions. Some companies are abusing the term and diluting its operational power.

In construction management, Professor El-Diraby focuses on more than just green technology and number crunching. He is interested in the business case, change management and the sociology of embracing ‘sustainability’. The professor is using social network analysis to help discover how communities – both citizens and professionals – view ‘sustainability’. Through crowdsourcing, the Professor is sifting through the noise uncovering interesting insights.

A large portion of his research examines how to manage and support implementation efforts for ‘sustainability’. Leveraging data analytics to help managers discover new knowledge or patterns of change, El-Diraby develops tools to help coordinate decision-making.

Across the global construction industry, many of the environmental and economic challenges with infrastructure systems are the same. However, the social aspects of ‘sustainability’ vary with the developmental phase of the city and country.

In Canada, with pre-existing infrastructure, governing bodies are seeking to change long-standing unsustainable construction practices. In a country like China, which is building new infrastructure, there is an opportunity to incorporate green construction and promote sustainable habits from the beginning. China is seeking to develop while Canada is seeking to optimize its developed systems. The methods are distinct but overall the goals remain the same.

Potential game changers are close, Professor El-Diraby believes for the construction management industry. He is confident the future is poised for many new impacts, which will improve the health and livability of our cities.

Automation | 3D printing and robotics are increasingly used. These technologies provide significant productivity improvements and elevate our capacity to examine complex problems.

Digitization | New technology called Building Information Modeling (BIM) is allowing sophisticated analysis and enhanced cross-border collaboration. The supply chain for construction design, finance and production is globalizing and yielding great benefits.

Net-generation | New construction customers are perceptive. They are acutely aware of sustainable energy options. These new players will force the industry to surpass green regulations and adapt to serve consumer demands.

Modern cities | There is a need for installing and re-configuring our infrastructure to accommodate new urban technologies such as driverless cars.

Professor Evan Bentz
RESEARCH FOCUS: Concrete and structures standing the test of time

“Sustainability is indeed a word that has become less powerful due to repeated use, but still represents an important concept,” says Professor Bentz. Speaking as a concrete expert, the term evokes similar feelings to “resilience” – which the Professor notes is also pervasive in the industry.  In both cases, Bentz believes these terms are important considerations and afford design engineers a point of reference when talking with building owners.

Bentz laughs when he recalls the reception the term artificial intelligence received during the 1980’s. Back then, engineers believed AI was probably impossible and discredited the term quickly. Fast forward to 2017 and AI is now a worthy pursuit many corporate giants are chasing. His bit of trivia elucidates; trending or not, engineers must address ‘sustainability’ today and ready themselves for the unexpected of tomorrow.

When studying concrete, Bentz uses ‘sustainability’ to imply longevity and practicality. “As engineers we need to build lasting structures and, given the constraints of the project, use materials as efficiently as possible,” says the Professor.  “In a sense, it is an attempt to provide an accounting of environmental issues previously neglected by our profession.” Improving building codes and creating increasingly efficient structures are just some of the ‘sustainability’ concepts involved in Bentz’s research.

Viewing ‘sustainability’ from a global perspective, there are only so many construction materials available on this planet. However, despite limited material types, their applications can be vastly different. The surrounding landscape of a building in Toronto is vastly different from a structure in Abu Dhabi. “This is why ‘sustainability’ issues are not taught as a single set of rules like design code regulations,” says Bentz.  “Instead they represent more of a way of thinking and that is partly why we teach ‘sustainability’ in all four years of our program.”

What important changes does the Professor foresee in the future?

Firstly, the availability of timber for large structural projects. “The stuff grows on trees,” he quips.  Another is the potential for large carbon taxes – much larger than current proposals, which could change our concrete mixes. Rather than designing with a small amount of high performance (and high strength) concrete, we might move back towards the older methods of having larger structural elements with a lower carbon footprint per cubic metre.

The most precipitous change for the professor will relate to cement production. Today, cement requires the burning of coal, which is a long-term problem. A cheap and greener method to create concrete would be a game changer for the Professor and industry at large.

Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou
RESEARCH FOCUS: Air quality, transportation and green house gases in cities

Disconcerting but repairable – describes Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou’s position on the word ‘sustainability’. She believes the term is too widely used and more often than not conveys naught. “I don’t think we should stop using it, I actually think we should straighten how it is used,” remarks the Professor.

Like Professor Posen, Hatzopoulou thinks of ‘sustainability’ as the triple bottom line. She does not appreciate the expansions and reimagining efforts people make corrupting triple bottom line’s simplicity. To the Professor, it is a straightforward concept: “We must evaluate the consequences of our decisions on the natural environment, on people and on the economy. Because without a growing economy, I don’t believe that we can be creative or sustainable,” says Hatzopoulou.

‘Sustainability’ drives her research where she specifically looks at air pollution, green house gases and transportation. She admits that her work cannot improve an entire system but, when combined with other research, there can be great change. “I don’t think any researcher can claim that their work on its own will improve the ‘sustainability’ of our cities and society but coalescing knowledge is what really matters.”

In an increasingly complex world, Hatzopoulou’s work on air pollution involves understanding the problem before outlining solutions. Transportation sources create the most air pollution in cities but there is more to the equation. Because air moves, travels, mixes and disperses, assigning responsibility is difficult. The Professor notes the motivation, not just the source of pollutants, is complicated. Those who drive may choose to do so because they do not have access to more “sustainable” forms of transportation. Policy-makers can only affect change within the constraints of their budgets. The automotive industry first and foremost must respond to customer demands. There are many factors to consider and her work looks to account for all.

Though Hatzopoulou may be dismayed by the use of ‘sustainability’ overall she believes Canadians are particularly well versed on green options. “The problem is not a lack of education, the problem exists at a governmental level where long-term and strategic planning is needed to address our uncertain sustainability in the future,” she says.

Road transport emissions and urban air quality have obvious implications to the overall health of our planet. The Professor believes one major change in the future will be autonomous vehicles and all other forms of automated transportation systems. Their ramifications on energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution will shape our cities and the lifestyles for all our residents.

Professor Lesley Warren
RESEARCH FOCUS: Cleaning dirty water from mineral extraction activity

Sustainability through a southern Ontario lens – is what Professor Lesley Warren calls it. In her research, when discussing the importance of ‘sustainability’, most people view the issue with an urban bias.  This is not a problem exclusive to Ontario – throughout the world, residents of urban areas often have a louder voice as over 60% of the world’s population lives in cities.

When thinking of ‘sustainability’ Prof. Warren explains people often overlook the integral role rural and underdeveloped areas of the country play in the ‘sustainability’ of our cities. “From the screens you read your emails on, to the fuel used to power commuter traffic, land far from urban centres has a direct impact on city green efforts,” Warren says.

The Professor is cautious when discussing ‘sustainability’ noting it is an ambiguous and at times pejorative term, which many exploit to oversell products, ideas or initiatives. “It is important to understand the deliverables for green efforts. Without full agreement on desired results, the word is more about marketing than driving tangible solutions,” states Warren.

An effective ‘sustainability’ definition begins with experts uniting and coalescing knowledge from across disciplines and contexts. She reiterates the complex nature of the term, noting that the many stakeholders and perspectives influence the term’s meaning.

City policies have great impacts on rural communities with close ties to the mineral extraction industry; mining wastewaters produced hundreds of kilometers away from urban environments have lasting impacts on cities’ health. Considering the interdependence, our population must come together and consolidate its efforts.

Warren recalls a poignant comment said to her years ago. After mining activity had contaminated the only water supply in a farmer’s African town, he remarked, “You can’t drink money.”  This statement has stuck with the Professor driving her efforts to measure ‘sustainability’ in more than dollar and cents. She regards stewardship, life quality and economic impacts as critical considerations to elicit the best results for the planet.

Collaborating with many mining industry leaders in her research, Warren points to the environmental champions. These advocates not only are reacting to problems, they are adopting proactive tactics. They are minimizing impacts and mining’s environmental legacy for future generations. Mineral extraction is important for the medical equipment discovering new treatments, for the microprocessor in our phones connecting loved ones across the world and for fertilizers responsible for our global food supply. And as we continue to meet our resource demands we can do so mitigating our environmental impacts.

An issue Professor Warren looks to address in the importance of sustainability is in water. It is a precious and finite resource and something the mining industry needs in vast quantities. In areas prone to water scarcity there are competing needs to address. Once minerals are extracted, the wastewater produced must be dealt with safely and securely. Upstream R&D is a focus for Warren. Engaging with industry partners, the Professor and the Lassonde Institute of Mining (LIM) and the new Lassonde Mining Hub (LMH) are pioneering new technologies that will dramatically transform the industry and create proactive solutions.


It is clear that the S-word has been reduced to a hashtag moniker for a trending movement. However, the nobility of effort is something to be celebrated. Mobilizing effects are palatable if the repetition does not alienate people first. Regardless of the trend, the word must amount to more than limited improvements and prioritize significant impacts. Clearly, to do so, definition is important.

The way public discourse uses the word ‘sustainable’ is undoubtedly unsustainable. Green. Eco. Globally-conscious responsibility. The list can go on. Whatever the word choice, the motivation is there and is important to all engineers.

Evolving eco-conscious terminology aside, our professors move past the hype and define ‘sustainability’ for impact and solutions. Here is a recap:

  • Professor Posen wants more numbers.
  • Professor El-Diraby wants to move past generic ideas to thoughtful examination.
  • Professor Bentz wants to ignore the over-use and see the term for that which it inspires.
  • Professor Hatzopoulou wants the term straightened-out.
  • Professor Warren wants a dual-lens from both urban and rural perspectives.

CIV 150 | Legacy Lecture – Canada 150 Edition

The First 150 Years of Civil Engineering in Canada

As Canada celebrates 150 years, we reprint an abridged lecture given by Robert F. Legget in 1977 —in honour of the University of Toronto’s 150th anniversary—with commentary provided by Professor Brenda McCabe in 2017. Click here to read the entire transcribed lecture.

Back in 1827 – the same year as the founding of the University of Toronto – travel was mainly by water but a network of simple roads did exist between the main settlements, often impassable but when in good repair sound enough to permit of the operation of simple horse-drawn wagons.

Although it was possible to travel by stage coach from Montreal to York, when the road was not impassable, the more usual way of making this long journey was by stage coach. Starting the nine miles on the road to Lachine; by boat across Lake St. Louis to Cascades; then a coach again to Coteau du Lac; on board another vessel for the journey to Cornwall; on shore again for a drive to Prescott; and then finally the long sail out by steamboat to the safe harbour of York on Lake Ontario.

North of the lake, once the shoreline settlements were left far behind, one found oneself among the great trees of virgin forests. Beyond the forests was still the land of the Indigenous peoples, penetrated only by intrepid voyageurs in their hunt for furs. In the fledgling settlements, lighting was still by oil or candles. All power was man- or horse-power, apart only from that available from the first water- and wind-mills. Fuel was from the nearby forests.

Surveying had started and the first land subdivisions had been made. Construction was underway on building homes and wharves, simple and imperfect roads, the small timber bridges and there were significant starts on canals, the Welland Canal. What changes the intervening 150 years have seen!

Consider briefly what has happened to the face of Canada in the space of just two generations. Despite its size all of Canada has now been seen from the air and photographed. Our northern regions have been surveyed and measured, to a scale of 1:250,000, and the southern part of the country at 1:50,000. Well over half a million miles of roads and streets now serve the entire southern part of the country. A splendid Trans-Canada Highway runs from coast to coast. A network of over 44,000 miles of railways still serves vital transport needs. The Intercolonial Railway and the Canadian Pacific Railway span the country uniting the early separated colonies in an almost mystical way. Two railways reach the shores of Hudson Bay. One line goes north of the 60th parallel; and in the Yukon, the White Pass Route still gives Whitehorse its link with the sea. Magnificent bridges, some of them world famous, serve both railways and roads.

Telegraph lines parallel road and rail across the land, linked with overseas cables beneath Atlantic and Pacific, their service now supplemented by familiar and frequent steel microwave towers. Almost 20,000 miles of gas and oil pipelines, hidden from view but providing vital media for fuel supplies. Airports throughout the land, of special significance in northern regions where the Inuvik runway continues to give splendid service to the largest planes even though founded on the worst of permafrost and muskeg. The airfields served by a variety of terminal buildings, large and small.

Twenty-five fine deep-water ports on Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as up the St. Lawrence, are vital links to worldwide trade. A great dredged channel enables large ships to sail up the St. Lawrence Seaway. This allows ocean-going vessels to penetrate the heartland of North America. In the west, irrigation systems assist in the progress of agriculture. Dams provide reservoirs for irrigation, for water supply and flood control, and above all for power generation. All these facilities are to serve the more than 23 million Canadians, of whom almost 80 per cent live in cities. All cities and towns now have public supplies of clean water for all citizens. All but the smallest inland towns now have sewer systems; many but by no means all, have treatment plants for processing wastewater before returning to natural waterways. Large cities have other underground services such as telephone circuits, high-pressure water for fire fighting, and gas mains. Networks of tunnels beneath city streets for mass transit and above ground we have great and beautiful buildings, some vast, some tall including the tallest building in the Commonwealth, and, in splendid, but puzzling isolation the CN Tower.

In more recent years, the mechanical engineer made great contributions especially in the steady development of power supply and transportation; mining engineers have been responsible for the development of mines; electrical engineers for the many applications of electricity for practical use; chemical engineers now playing their special role in the process and chemical industries. Civil engineers form part of a well-integrated team.

In earlier days, there were no divisions of engineering; there was military engineering and there was civilian engineering. Since then, it has been the civil engineer who has still been responsible for “changing the face of the land”, working with his fellow engineers in the equipping of his structures and associated with architects in the design of buildings.

I think first of the hundreds, rather the thousands of civil engineers who served loyally their better known Chiefs – the surveyors, the resident engineers, the construction superintendents, often working in relative isolation, often in danger in earlier days, usually far removed from the conveniences of urban living, but carrying great responsibilities.

The record of civil engineering in Canada is not an unbroken success story. Mistakes were made, some serious ones. The failure of the Transcona Elevator when first it was filled with grain, tilting almost 40° before it came to rest, was one of the most spectacular building failures that the world has ever seen but restoring it to a vertical position showed the world also the skill of Canadian civil engineering contractors.
Then there are those who equate civil engineering with ugly structures. Admittedly, there are some structures that fail to blend with the landscape and add no beauty to it. In my opinion, these constitute a small minority. On the other hand, one thinks rather of elegant and graceful bridges. Many powerhouses, through the combined work of civil engineers and architects, are truly noble buildings. And some were greatly impressed with the beauty in the West, of the grain elevators, with their white domes and towers, which carry the eye from the immense prairie levels to the blue prairie sky.

There are also strongly voiced criticisms of civil engineers for “spoiling the environment” with strange implications that it is the civil engineers who are somehow responsible for the pollution of waterways with sewage, to take but one example. Engineers have long known how to purify all liquid wastes but they can only apply that knowledge if those responsible, in industry and in government, so direct and are willing to pay the cost. The city of London, England, demonstrated what can be done by civil engineers, if the leadership is there, by the cleaning up of the River Thames. Canada has still far to go, in cleaning up the Great Lakes and the Ottawa River to give just a couple examples.

Interest in the protection of the environment is welcome but public concerns must be well informed and based on fact rather than emotions. Some public comments on our waterways, would suggest that civil engineers have done nothing about flood protection and are blamed for not “doing something” long ago. Have those critics heard of the Quebec Streams Commission, world renowned in the 1920s-1930s as a pioneer water conservation agency or the River Valley Conservation Authorities of Ontario whose work has been in both the design and construction of water control projects.

The future has inevitably come up for mention; how could it be otherwise? Almost all the works of civil engineers are planned and designed with future needs always in view. Their prime objective is to provide those physical services for people that are essential for modern living. In all civil engineering anticipating the needs, number and distribution of future people.

The turn of the century is less than twenty three years away. Why do I suggest so limiting our future thinking? Because we can today anticipate some disconcerting developments which will almost certainly be here by 2000 if not before. It now seems certain that the ·population of the world will be about seven billion by the end of the century, double that of 1970. Some experts predict that world starvation will limit total growth beyond this; some say this could occur even before the close of the century.

But that there will be a substantially larger population in Canada by the end of the century is certain, with well over eighty-five per cent living in urban areas. Linked with such changes is the prediction that electric load is expected to double by 1983. and may redouble by 1993.

Quadrupling of power supply well before the end of the century raises another set of questions, especially when it is realized that the United States “uses more energy for air conditioning alone than 800 million Chinese use for all purposes (and) Canada is part of this same syndrome”. The use and supply of materials, non-renewable natural resources, further illustrate the profligate society in which we are living.

The world of 2000 will be very different from today. The vast problems that can be seen ahead will be overcome but the profligacy of our present society must be curbed. There are limits to growth and the sooner we realize this the better. Here is where we must distinguish between our duty as privileged and informed citizens with corresponding special responsibilities, and as civil engineers. In this article we are concerned with the contributions of civil engineering to Canada.

Remembering this, let us consider just the needs of Canada itself. Civil engineers will continue to be responsible for the construction of urgently needed power plants and of the means of handling fossil fuels, improved railways and waterways for coal and pipelines for gas and oil. More mundane but equally important is the many treatment plants, supplementing new water supply systems, so that our waterways may be conserved for all time while being well used. Other urban services will call for improvement and extension, always with due regard for the amenity of “city-scapes”, all possible services being placed underground. Engineers will have special responsibility for protecting the fragile environment of the far North of our country, something that Canada must ensure without question.

These are challenging prospects. Many involve underground work. Remember also that every structure depends for its safety and stability upon the ground on which it rests and thus the importance of geology in all work will be evident. No two foundation problems are ever the same. Judgement is required in every case for the final decision as to the suitability of the ground to serve as foundation bed, as a material of construction, or for excavation. And no computer ever exercised judgement.

Civil engineering must, therefore, continue to depend for its excellence upon well-trained men and women who are willing to gain experience the hard way, on the job, that experience upon which alone sound judgement can be based. This requires, the very best training by experienced instructors , who can introduce their students to a new techniques, new methods, new approaches to old problems. And who can inspire an appreciation of their high calling, of the heritage of their profession.

As we face the unknown of tomorrow, we would do well to look backward, as this anniversary gives us pause to do, to be inspired by the examples of our profession’s past; to make every possible use of the accumulated experience of all who have gone before; to realize that every step forward is a small part in the long tradition of civil engineering and to improving this wonderful land of Canada.

A 2017 perspective by Professor Brenda McCabe

One can only be impressed by the history of Civil Engineering in Canada. Mr. Leggett’s story warms the hearts of us all. During Canada 150, I hope you can take a detour to visit some of the country’s iconic Civil Engineering sites. Having had the opportunity to travel the length of the Rideau and Trent-Severn Canals, I can attest to the ingenuity and longevity of those incredible water highways. Even today, some of the valves, lock doors and swing bridges along the canals are operated manually. It serves as a reminder of how clever engineering can last longer than a lifetime.

The world is a different place than it was when Leggett gave his insightful lecture 40 years ago. While we are still constructing important transportation, energy, water, and building infrastructure systems, those projects seem bigger and more complex today. New technologies are being introduced at a pace unseen before. Our perspective and responsibilities are growing as we engage more stakeholders in critical decision making, including First Nations. Our goal is not just to build, but to ensure that future generations may also benefit from living in a country of extraordinary people, opportunities, and natural resources.

The civil and mineral engineering classrooms are also changing. Enrollment of women in first year has reached 40 per cent two years in a row! The fundamental tenets of theory and practice remain. Engineering is an applied science and experiential learning is key to the making of a great engineer. For nearly 100 years, Survey Camp has provided civil and mining/mineral students with immersive, hands-on learning about measurement, teamwork, and engineering sensibility. In addition to the array of technical courses, students are learning about social responsibility, leadership, and entrepreneurship.

It would be interesting indeed to read a history of our next 150 years as Canada continues to develop and take leadership roles on the world stage. Hopefully, it would be just as exciting, and celebrate more engineers with the skills and motivation to champion and lead our great country.

#EveryDropMatters: Five ways U of T engineering research is enhancing water sustainability

Amy Bilton, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and graduate student Ahmed Mahmoud examine a model of a passive aerator for fish farms that they are designing (photo by Roberta Baker)
Posted on August 16, 2017 | Originally Appeared on U of T News by: Tyler Irving

 New exhibit brings water research and innovation to Canadian National Exhibition

 Fresh water, salt water, wastewater, industrial water, drinking water: all water on Earth is part of the same cycle – and every drop matters. Yet around the world, water supply and quality is under increasing pressure from growing populations, industrial development and climate change.

Researchers at U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering are leading the way in addressing these pressing global challenges. Professors and students are working together to use UV light to destroy chemical contaminants, develop low-cost solutions for sanitation and effectively control and mitigate pollution by studying and deploying ancient organisms.

During the 2017 Canadian National Exhibition, U of T engineering students will showcase the innovative and multidisciplinary solutions being developed in the faculty. At this interactive exhibit, CNE attendees can test their awareness of water consumption and conservation topics with a short quiz, share on social media and win a reusable water bottle.

Here are five ways that U of T engineering researchers are addressing pressing water challenges, across Canada and around the world:

Purifying drinking water

Zhjie Nie takes a sample at a Toronto-area drinking water treatment plant for her project on using activated carbon to remove contaminants (photo by Ron Hofmann)

From caffeine to birth control pills, most of the drugs we take pass through our bodies into wastewater and eventually into lakes and rivers. To keep our drinking water clean, we need new strategies to remove these pollutants.

In partnership with a number of municipalities, Robert Andrews, a professor of civil engineering, and Ron Hofmann, an associate professor of civil engineering, are testing a set of new approaches known as advanced oxidation. They blast water with everything from ultraviolet light to ozone, breaking down chemical compounds and leading to safer and cleaner drinking water.

Learn more about Andrews’ and Hofmann’s research

Restoring contaminated groundwater

photo of sleeping lab
Brent Sleep oversees the establishment of the Remediation Education Network, which researches new technologies to decontaminate soil and groundwater (photo by Roberta Baker)

Across North America, thousands of sites have been contaminated with industrial compounds. These contaminants can be degraded by bacteria, but the process is slow.

Brent Sleepa professor of civil engineering, and his team are tackling the challenge through a project called Innovative Technologies for Groundwater Remediation (INTEGRATE). The INTEGRATE team is accelerating the process by pre-treating soil and inserting custom communities of more efficient bacteria that break down contaminants more quickly.

Elizabeth Edwards, a professor of chemical engineering, also pursues this approach and has developed a commercial product that is particularly good at degrading chlorinated compounds, formerly used in dry cleaning facilities: a community of microbes called KB-1. More recently, she’s developed a new microbial community that can degrade benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes – collectively known as BTEX – in soil and groundwater.

Learn more about Sleep’s research

Learn more about Edwards’ research

Sustainable sanitation

A team of U of T engineers has been hard at work building a better toilet for the 2.5 billion people who lack access to safe sanitation (photo by Centre for Global Engineering)

Worldwide, about 2.5 billion people – a third of the global population – have no access to safe sanitation. This lack of hygiene is linked to the spread of many preventable diseases, such as diarrheal diseases that kill more than 500,000 children under the age of five every year.

A team led by chemical engineering professor and director of the Centre for Global Engineering, Yu-Ling Cheng, is developing a waterless toilet that can disinfect human waste without connections to water, sewer or grid power. With a total cost of less than five U.S. cents per person per day, it is designed for users in the developing world.

Learn more about Cheng’s research

Designing for stormwater

Jennifer Drake and her students research ways to design our urban infrastructure to be resilient to storm surges, including this catchbasin shield that can capture sediments from stormwater runoff (photo by Pavneet Brar)

Buildings and roadways are designed to get rid of water as quickly as possible – but that can be a disaster during heavy rains, when it often leads to urban flooding.

Jennifer Drake, a professor of civil engineering, is using technologies such as water-permeable pavement to restore natural flow systems, which allow groundwater deposits to recharge more slowly and encourage river-like flows of runoff. She is also optimizing the design and cost-effectiveness of green roofs, which can reduce peak stormwater flows.

Learn more about Drake’s research

Rethinking resource extraction remediation

Lesley Warren (standing, at right) and her colleagues are mining the genomes of microbes that thrive in wastewater generated by the resource extraction industry (photo courtesy of Lesley Warren)

The mining and resource extraction industries generate millions of litres of contaminated wastewater annually, the chemistry of which is controlled by ancient microorganisms that breathe minerals in order to survive. An academic-industrial collaboration led by Lesley Warren, a professor of civil engineering and director of the Lassonde Institute of Mining, is studying the genomes of these organisms, gaining insight that could help both clean up contaminated water and prevent pollutants from forming in the first place.

Learn more about Warren’s research

U of T Mining and Mineral Engineering ranks top 10 in the world

Psychology research at the University of Toronto is ranked second in the world – just after Harvard University – in a new ranking of subjects by the independent Shanghai Ranking Consultancy.

In addition to psychology, U of T also ranked third in medical technology, fifth in public health, sixth in human biological sciences and ninth in biotechnology, finance, and mining & mineral engineering in the report.

The 2017 Shanghai Subject Ranking, released earlier this week, surveyed more than 500 top global universities in 52 subject areas.

Overall, U of T ranked in the top 25 for 25 different subject areas – only four universities were ranked in more subjects (Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and MIT).

Among Canadian universities, U of T was ranked first (or tied) in 28 of the 46 subjects it was ranked in.

“It’s wonderful to see the continued recognition that the University of Toronto is one of the few institutions in the world with strength across the full breadth of areas of scholarship,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation.

The 2017 Shanghai Subject Ranking looks at natural sciences, engineering, life sciences, medical sciences and social sciences, with the majority of its subjects falling under engineering. It uses bibliometric data as the source for the majority of its indicators, complemented by data on faculty honours and awards in selected subjects.

Each of the subjects have a differing mix of indicator weightings, thresholds for inclusion and depth to the rankings depending on the characteristics of the data.

The Shanghai Ranking Consultancy is also the publisher of the influential Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), commonly known as the Shanghai Ranking. This year, the ARWU ranked U of T 27th in the world.

In March, a similar report on global subject rankings by software company QS Quacquarelli Symonds placed U of T in the top 10 globally in nursing (6th), sports-related subjects (6th), anatomy & physiology (8th), geography (9th), computer science (10th) and education (10th). Medicine, anthropology and religious studies just missed the top 10 list, landing in 11th place.

Among Canadian universities, U of T was first in all five of the broad subject areas and first in 32 of the 43 subjects in which the university was ranked by the QS World University Rankings by Subject.

Globally, the results place the University of Toronto among the world’s elite institutions in all five subject areas and in 43 of the 46 subjects surveyed. The university scored even higher when public higher education institutions alone were counted in the subject areas ranked.

Overall, the University of Toronto continues to be the highest ranked Canadian university and one of the top ranked public universities in the four most prestigious international rankings: Times High Education, QS World Rankings, Shanghai Ranking Consultancy and National Taiwan University.

This article originally appeared on U of T News.