Concrete check-up: Fae Azhari develops diagnostics for critical infrastructure

Professor Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) holds a sample of the self-sensing concrete she designed. Her work helps monitor the structural health of crucial infrastructure such as bridges, roads and hydroelectric dams. (Credit: Roberta Baker)

This story originally appeared on U of T Engineering News.

Canada will spend $125 billion on infrastructure maintenance and expansion in the next 10 years. Professor Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) is helping stretch those dollars farther by keeping our buildings, bridges, roads and reservoirs safe and structurally sound for longer.

Azhari’s research focuses on structural health monitoring. Just as you visit the doctor for periodic check-ups, structures need their health checked too — but instead of blood tests and heart rate measurements, engineers usually perform visual inspections and spot-checks with sensors and instruments.

“The problem with visual inspections is that they’re pretty subjective, and with periodic monitoring, you can miss certain events or failures,” says Azhari. “Now we’re moving toward continuous monitoring by incorporating permanent sensors on important structures to get real-time data.”

Degradation or damage suffered between inspections can have catastrophic consequences. In June 2013, a rail bridge just outside of downtown Calgary partially collapsed as a train was passing over it. The train, carrying flammable and toxic liquids, derailed. Emergency measures were taken to prevent the railcars from falling into the Bow River, which was running high with summer floodwater. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada determined that floodwaters had eroded the soil around the bridge’s foundations, causing the collapse. This loss of sediment from around foundational supports is called scour.

“Believe it or not, this happens very often, especially in North America and some Asian countries,” says Azhari. “Scour is a huge problem.”

For her PhD research at the University of California, Davis, Azhari tackled scour from a new angle: she took commercially available sensors that measure dissolved oxygen, typically used for agriculture or biological applications, and used them for sensing scour. Azhari’s design was to attach a number of oxygen sensors at increasing depths along the buried length of the bridge pier. If the pier is properly buried, the dissolved oxygen levels detected by the sensors should be very low — but as scour erodes the sediments and exposes the sensors to flowing water, the dissolved oxygen levels rise. As scour progresses, more and more sensors become exposed, indicating how badly scour is threatening the bridge’s structural integrity.

She has also worked on concrete sensors, including a design that integrates conductive carbon fibers and nanotubes into concrete, making it a self-sensing material. Measuring the resistance across the material reveals the stresses and strains on it. “This technology is well-proven in the laboratory, but moving it to the field is a big challenge,” says Azhari.

As she builds her research enterprise, Azhari plans to collaborate across disciplines and with key partners who could benefit from her sensors, as well her analysis and insight into the data that comes from them. “Transportation infrastructure, utilities, dams, power plants, wind turbines — basically any engineering system — needs maintenance and monitoring,” she says.

“It’s very important to get these sensors from prototype to implementation, and I want to work on that.”

Heat, housing and health: Marianne Touchie and the complexity of multi-unit residential buildings

Professor Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) is working with Toronto Community Housing and The Atmospheric Fund to better understand how changes to energy use affect indoor environmental quality in multi-unit residential buildings. Toronto Public Health is collaborating to use their data to inform policy. (Photo: Kevin Soobrian)

Professor Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) is working with Toronto Community Housing and The Atmospheric Fund to better understand how changes to energy use affect indoor environmental quality in multi-unit residential buildings. Toronto Public Health is collaborating to use their data to inform policy. (Photo: Kevin Soobrian)

Professor Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) is working with Toronto Community Housing and The Atmospheric Fund to better understand how changes to energy use affect indoor environmental quality in multi-unit residential buildings. Toronto Public Health is collaborating to use their data to inform policy. (Photo: Kevin Soobrian)


This story originally appeared at U of T Engineering News

This story is a part of a  five-part #RisingStars series, highlighting the work of our early-career professors.

In cities from coast to coast, condominium towers are being constructed at an unprecedented rate, with 30,000 new units added in 2015 to the Toronto market alone. This is driven both by recent advances in the design, engineering and construction of tall buildings, and a stark increase in demand for these multi-unit residential buildings (MURBs). “More people are moving downtown,” says Professor Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE). “There’s very limited space, so we need high-density housing options and MURBs provide that.”

With a background in building science, Touchie studies the relationships between energy efficiency and indoor environment quality parameters, such as thermal comfort, in these high-density buildings. In Toronto, one of the largest suppliers of MURBs is Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), which owns 50 million square feet of residential space and houses 110,000 residents. Many of these are older buildings without air conditioning.

“A lot of these buildings rely on ventilation through the building envelope, which is not terribly effective. At the same time, we need to reduce our energy consumption and energy use,” she says. “But reducing energy usage has implications for occupants, and that’s what I’m interested in studying.”

Touchie is currently collaborating with The Atmospheric Fund (formerly the Toronto Atmospheric Fund) on a large research project—one that she has been involved with since her role as their Building Research Manager from 2014 to 2015. She and her colleagues are collecting data on energy consumption, temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide concentration in more than 70 apartments spanning seven different TCHC buildings.

“It’s probably the most comprehensive MURB monitoring project in North America, if not the world,” says Touchie.

They are also working with Professor Jeffrey Siegel (CivE), who is examining concentrations of formaldehyde, particulate matter and, through a partnership with Health Canada, radon concentrations. Touchie says that collaborations, such as those with TCHC, The Atmospheric Fund and Siegel, are critical to creating a comprehensive picture of the MURBs she studies. “Buildings are so complex,” says Touchie. “I have training in one particular area, but I’m not an indoor air quality expert. When we make changes from an energy perspective to the ventilation system, or the heating and cooling system, it has an influence on the air quality. Working with other experts, like Professor Siegel, we can gather data on all sides.”

Touchie’s findings with The Atmospheric Fund and TCHC have drawn the interest of Toronto Public Health. The agency is interested in the health impact of extreme heat, and the study has found that these TCHC buildings are often overheated, especially in the summer.

“Extreme heat is a health problem, especially for the most vulnerable populations,” says Sarah Gingrich, a Health Policy Specialist at Toronto Public Health. Very young children, the elderly and people with illnesses or taking certain medications are most at risk. “This work is providing evidence that excessive heat is a problem in older apartment buildings in Toronto. The research is showing that although the temperature cools down at night outside, in these buildings it rises during the day and they stay hot all night long.”

Touchie and her collaborators are finding that a major culprit for the inefficient heating and cooling performance is uncontrolled air leakage. These leaks often occur around windows, doors, exhaust fans and elevator shafts. But inefficiencies aren’t just a building issue: she adds that “because people can do whatever they want in their own homes, like open and close their windows, MURBs combine the complexity of high-rise buildings with the occupant wild card,” which makes managing the indoor environment even trickier.

“The study provides valuable information on Toronto apartment buildings that will help to inform policy development,” says Toronto Public Health’s Gingrich. “It fills a very important gap by providing up-to-date data that highlights some of the challenges in this type of building, and points to potential solutions.”

Next, Touchie hopes to expand her research to newer condos, where data is even scarcer. “They’re going up so quickly, and we really have no information about the quality of the indoor environment or their energy performance,” she says. “I am very curious whether their energy consumption matches the performance level promised at the design stage.”

U of T Engineering receives $31.6M investment for lab infrastructure

The Sandford Fleming Building is just one of the U of T Engineering facilities that received funding through a major investment from the Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund. (Image: Neil Ta)

The Sandford Fleming Building is just one of the U of T Engineering facilities that received funding through a major investment from the Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund. (Image: Neil Ta)

This story originally appeared on Engineering News.

A major investment through the Lab Innovation for Toronto (LIFT) project will accelerate infrastructure improvements across U of T Engineering, catalyzing world-class research and enhancing the student experience.

The funding was announced today U of T President Meric Gertler with Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan and Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains. It includes contributions from the university, the provincial government and the federal government through its Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund. The Faculty will receive $31.6 million to support renovations to 89 laboratory facilities. The work will benefit more than 330 U of T Engineering researchers, including professors, graduate students and undergraduate students.

Plans for spaces slated to receive significant infrastructure investment include:

  • Lab space in the Galbraith, Sandford Fleming and the Engineering Annex buildings will be opened up to further enhance collaboration between researchers, both within and across disciplines. Environmental controls will also be upgraded to protect sensitive research equipment.
  • New laboratory equipment, including more fumehoods to increase the number of experiments that can be run simultaneously, will be added to labs at the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering, the Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and the Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering.
  • The Sustainable Aviation Design Lab at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) will be expanded, enhancing the work of researchers who are reducing emissions and cutting fuel costs in the global aviation industry.

This investment coincides with the ongoing construction of the Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CEIE), the Faculty’s newest building, set to open in 2017. A vibrant hub that will set a new standard for engineering education and research, the CEIE will provide a new home for world-leading institutes such as the Centre for Global Engineering and the Institute for Robotics and Mechatronics. Its design/meet rooms and light fabrication facilities will enable students, professors and industry collaborators to work together across disciplines on complex global challenges and launch new companies to bring their solutions to market.

Learn more about the CEIE.

“This important infrastructure investment will further empower our researchers with world-class facilities as we address pressing global challenges,” said Dean Cristina Amon. “We are grateful to receive this federal infrastructure funding, which will also provide our students with enhanced experiential learning opportunities as we continue to nurture the next generations of engineering leaders.”

In total, the University of Toronto received nearly $190 million for renovations to 546 labs, supporting approximately 1,100 researchers and 5,500 students.

Learn more about the Lab Innovation for Toronto (LIFT) announcement.

Two new faculty are cross appointed with CivE and MIE

Two new faculty members join Civil and, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Collaboration is the key to success and the driving factor behind the hiring of two new professors that are cross-appointed with the Departments of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, and Civil Engineering. Professors Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) and Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) joined the Faculty at the beginning of July. Professor Touchie completed a BASc and PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on improving the energy performance and indoor environmental quality of existing buildings to make them more comfortable, healthy and sustainable through comprehensive retrofits. Professor Azhari holds degrees in Civil Engineering from Isfahan University of Technology and University of British Columbia, Industrial Engineering from UC Berkeley, and Structural Engineering and Mechanics from UC Davis. She specializes in structural health monitoring (SHM) of engineering systems. U of T Engineering spoke with the new professors to find out more about their research and what they’re looking forward to at U of T: Fae Azhari Could you explain the focus of your research? My work focuses on SHM of engineering systems. Similar to the way a doctor would point out when an organ is malfunctioning in a patient’s body during regular check-ups, SHM is able to diagnose and locate any anomalies in an engineering system. Since this diagnosis happens at a very early stage, the remedial procedure will usually be timely and cost effective. My goal is to address some of the gaps in the succession of tasks from sensor development to implementation and decision making. Why did you choose U of T? Long before pursuing academia, I visited Toronto and the campus here. The historical feel and the intellectual vibe stayed in my mind. I’m so happy to be working here now. My research field is multidisciplinary, and having access to the many great resources, facilities, colleagues and mentors at U of T will be extremely valuable in advancing my research and career. What are you most looking forward to in your new position? I like the sense of collegiality at U of T and look forward to effective collaborations with other researchers. As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students? At university you are often your own teacher so expect to be treated that way. Try to be proactive and do not be afraid to ask questions. What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering? I hope to one day truly ‘profess’ my subject.; to understand the old and new bodies of knowledge in such a way that I can properly judge their significance and place in the grand scheme of things. Marianne Touchie Could you explain the focus of your research? My research focuses on the question of how do we improve the quality of our indoor environment as we strive for greater energy efficiency? Making buildings more comfortable and healthy often come at an energy cost. Why did you choose U of T? U of T is my alma mater so I am well aware of the significance and impact of the research done here and I am looking forward to collaborating with so many talented colleagues and students in both the lab and the classroom. What are you most looking forward to in your new position? With a cross appointment between Civil Engineering and Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, I’m excited to bring together students from across disciplines. As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students? Allow yourself to wrestle with a problem before asking for help. It is effortless to use Google or message someone to find an answer. But this process doesn’t improve your own ability to problem solve, think critically or take your own position on an issue. During your time at U of T you will gain plenty of technical knowledge but transferable skills like problem solving will be of the most valuable after graduation. What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering? Within Civil Engineering, I would like to continue growing the Canadian Centre for Building Excellence (CCBE) with Professors Kim Pressnail and Jeffrey Siegel into a world-renowned research centre for healthy, energy efficient buildings. I would also like to create stronger links through multidisciplinary design courses which will give students an opportunity to tackle today’s important problems with colleagues from a variety of technical backgrounds.

Two new faculty members join Civil and, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Collaboration is the key to success and the driving factor behind the hiring of two new professors that are cross-appointed with the Departments of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, and Civil Engineering. Professors Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) and Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) joined the Faculty at the beginning of July. Professor Touchie completed a BASc and PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on improving the energy performance and indoor environmental quality of existing buildings to make them more comfortable, healthy and sustainable through comprehensive retrofits. Professor Azhari holds degrees in Civil Engineering from Isfahan University of Technology and University of British Columbia, Industrial Engineering from UC Berkeley, and Structural Engineering and Mechanics from UC Davis. She specializes in structural health monitoring (SHM) of engineering systems. U of T Engineering spoke with the new professors to find out more about their research and what they’re looking forward to at U of T: Fae Azhari Could you explain the focus of your research? My work focuses on SHM of engineering systems. Similar to the way a doctor would point out when an organ is malfunctioning in a patient’s body during regular check-ups, SHM is able to diagnose and locate any anomalies in an engineering system. Since this diagnosis happens at a very early stage, the remedial procedure will usually be timely and cost effective. My goal is to address some of the gaps in the succession of tasks from sensor development to implementation and decision making. Why did you choose U of T? Long before pursuing academia, I visited Toronto and the campus here. The historical feel and the intellectual vibe stayed in my mind. I’m so happy to be working here now. My research field is multidisciplinary, and having access to the many great resources, facilities, colleagues and mentors at U of T will be extremely valuable in advancing my research and career. What are you most looking forward to in your new position? I like the sense of collegiality at U of T and look forward to effective collaborations with other researchers. As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students? At university you are often your own teacher so expect to be treated that way. Try to be proactive and do not be afraid to ask questions. What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering? I hope to one day truly ‘profess’ my subject.; to understand the old and new bodies of knowledge in such a way that I can properly judge their significance and place in the grand scheme of things. Marianne Touchie Could you explain the focus of your research? My research focuses on the question of how do we improve the quality of our indoor environment as we strive for greater energy efficiency? Making buildings more comfortable and healthy often come at an energy cost. Why did you choose U of T? U of T is my alma mater so I am well aware of the significance and impact of the research done here and I am looking forward to collaborating with so many talented colleagues and students in both the lab and the classroom. What are you most looking forward to in your new position? With a cross appointment between Civil Engineering and Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, I’m excited to bring together students from across disciplines. As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students? Allow yourself to wrestle with a problem before asking for help. It is effortless to use Google or message someone to find an answer. But this process doesn’t improve your own ability to problem solve, think critically or take your own position on an issue. During your time at U of T you will gain plenty of technical knowledge but transferable skills like problem solving will be of the most valuable after graduation. What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering? Within Civil Engineering, I would like to continue growing the Canadian Centre for Building Excellence (CCBE) with Professors Kim Pressnail and Jeffrey Siegel into a world-renowned research centre for healthy, energy efficient buildings. I would also like to create stronger links through multidisciplinary design courses which will give students an opportunity to tackle today’s important problems with colleagues from a variety of technical backgrounds. Collaboration is the key to success and the driving factor behind the hiring of two new professors that are cross-appointed with the Departments of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, and Civil Engineering. Professors Marianne Touchie (CivE, MIE) and Fae Azhari (MIE, CivE) joined the Faculty at the beginning of July.

Professor Touchie completed a BASc and PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on improving the energy performance and indoor environmental quality of existing buildings to make them more comfortable, healthy and sustainable through comprehensive retrofits.

Professor Azhari holds degrees in Civil Engineering from Isfahan University of Technology and University of British Columbia, Industrial Engineering from UC Berkeley, and Structural Engineering and Mechanics from UC Davis. She specializes in structural health monitoring (SHM) of engineering systems.

U of T Engineering spoke with the new professors to find out more about their research and what they’re looking forward to at U of T:


Could you explain the focus of your research?

MT: My research focuses on the question of how do we improve the quality of our indoor environment as we strive for greater energy efficiency? Making buildings more comfortable and healthy often come at an energy cost.

FA: My work focuses on SHM of engineering systems. Similar to the way a doctor would point out when an organ is malfunctioning in a patient’s body during regular check-ups, SHM is able to diagnose and locate any anomalies in an engineering system. Since this diagnosis happens at a very early stage, the remedial procedure will usually be timely and cost effective. My goal is to address some of the gaps in the succession of tasks from sensor development to implementation and decision making.

Why did you choose U of T?

MT: U of T is my alma mater so I am well aware of the significance and impact of the research done here and I am looking forward to collaborating with so many talented colleagues and students in both the lab and the classroom.

FA: Long before pursuing academia, I visited Toronto and the campus here. The historical feel and the intellectual vibe stayed in my mind. I’m so happy to be working here now. My research field is multidisciplinary, and having access to the many great resources, facilities, colleagues and mentors at U of T will be extremely valuable in advancing my research and career.

What are you most looking forward to in your new position?

MT: With a cross appointment between Civil Engineering and Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, I’m excited to bring together students from across disciplines.

FA: I like the sense of collegiality at U of T and look forward to effective collaborations with other researchers.

As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students?

MT: Allow yourself to wrestle with a problem before asking for help. It is effortless to use Google or message someone to find an answer. But this process doesn’t improve your own ability to problem solve, think critically or take your own position on an issue. During your time at U of T you will gain plenty of technical knowledge but transferable skills like problem solving will be of the most valuable after graduation.

FA: At university you are often your own teacher so expect to be treated that way. Try to be proactive and do not be afraid to ask questions.

What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering?

MT: Within Civil Engineering, I would like to continue growing the Canadian Centre for Building Excellence (CCBE) with Professors Kim Pressnail and Jeffrey Siegel into a world-renowned research centre for healthy, energy efficient buildings.
I would also like to create stronger links through multidisciplinary design courses which will give students an opportunity to tackle today’s important problems with colleagues from a variety of technical backgrounds.

FA: I hope to one day truly ‘profess’ my subject.; to understand the old and new bodies of knowledge in such a way that I can properly judge their significance and place in the grand scheme of things.

Six engineering innovations get a boost from NSERC Strategic Partnership Grants

This story originally posted on Engineering News.

New funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) will advance U of T Engineering research in sustainable energy, telecommunications and more.

On March 1, NSERC announced six Strategic Partnership Grants to help U of T engineers address some of the greatest challenges facing Canada and the world. The projects include new technologies to extract valuable minerals from hazardous mine tailings and systems to enable cities to repurpose stormwater more effectively. In total, the program invested more than $3.2 million in U of T Engineering and more than $5.3 million across the entire University.

The six funded projects are:

Elodie Passeport

Elodie Passeport (ChemE, CivE) — Smarter stormwater management

Heavy rainstorms like those that hit Toronto in July 2013 do more than damage basements — they also wash street-level pollution into local rivers and lakes. Nature deals with this problem through wetlands, which swell or shrink with the rains and which contain microorganisms that break down harmful substances. Bioretention cells are artificial structures designed to mimic this process in urban areas, yet for unknown reasons, some work better than others. Passeport and her team aim to pin down the hydrological, chemical, and physical processes that determine the performance of bioretention cells in order to optimize their design. Better stormwater management could prevent pollution from reaching the environment.

 

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Mansoor Barati (MSE) — Reclaiming hazardous waste

The area around Sudbury, Ont. is surrounded by 50- to 100-million tonnes of liquid tailings left over from mining operations. This waste material poses environmental risks if left untreated. Yet it still contains useful elements such as nickel, iron and sulfur which continue to be in demand in manufacturing and other sectors. Barati and his team are developing a process that recovers these elements from the tailings and generates electricity at the same time. The process would provide a permanent solution for the waste as well as economic benefits to the mine and surrounding community.

 

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Aimy Bazylak (MIE) — Hydrogen for clean, on-demand power

Environmentally friendly fuel cell vehicles run on hydrogen instead of gasoline, producing no emissions other than water and heat. Unfortunately, most hydrogen currently comes from natural gas, but it can also be extracted from water using electricity produced from renewable energy, such as the wind and sun. Polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) electolyzers are a technology that essentially operate like reverse fuel cells, extracting hydrogen and oxygen from water. Moreover, they can enable us to efficiently deal with the huge peaks and troughs of intermittent electricity generated from variable renewable sources, such as wind, solar and tidal power. This project aims to use the team’s existing expertise in PEM-based fuel cells to advance PEM electrolyzers for clean hydrogen generation.

 

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Sean Hum (ECE) — Advanced Electromagnetic Surfaces for Next-Generation Communications Systems

The number of smartphones and connected tablets in the world is well into the billions and growing fast. Yet the wireless communications systems on which these devices depend use radio signals, and there are only so many frequencies to go around. Hum and his team develop advanced electromagnetic surfaces that can be used to redesign antennas, enabling more sophisticated control over radio signals. Used in satellites, these surfaces could dramatically improve communication capacity while reducing the size and weight of antennas. These surfaces can also be used in buildings, where they could improve reception and eliminate “dead zones.” By enabling more data to be transmitted wirelessly using the same bandwidth, the inventions will usher in the next generation of electronic communication.

 

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Ted Sargent (ECE) — Better lasers for transmitting digital information

Every time you upload a document, photo or video to the cloud your file is sent to a large collection of servers known as a datacentre. Within these datacentres, information is transmitted both electronically and optically. However, the devices that translate data between these two modes are inefficient, generating large amounts of waste heat and making datacentres enormous energy hogs. Using nano-sized particles called quantum dots, Sargent and his team are developing entirely new type of laser that is capable of being deposited directly on a silicon chip. The device will turn electrical impulses into light bursts in a much more efficient way, drastically reducing the amount of energy required to transmit data and the cost of cloud computing.

 

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Costas Sarris (ECE) — Redesigning train signalling for improved safety

Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) is aimed at replacing conventional rail signalling with train control enabled by wireless communication between the train and a network of access points. In a cellular communication system, a network outage may cause a dropped call, but in a CBTC network it directly compromises the safety of train passengers. Therefore, these safety-critical systems must meet high standards of reliability, beyond those of typical communication networks. Sarris and his team, along withThales Canada, are developing a new paradigm for the design of CBTC systems with enhanced robustness and reliability. These systems can effectively serve the increasing need for rail transportation safety and efficiency shared by a growing number of Canadians, especially urban commuters in large metropolitan areas.