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FEATURE 1 Small City, Big Ideas

One of Kingston’s greatest strengths as a community is its wealth of intellectual talent. Thanks to Queen’s University, Royal Military College and St. Lawrence College, the city is endowed with a measure of brainpower that other similarly sized communities can only envy. Of course, it’s impossible to summarize all of the groundbreaking work that so many of Kingston’s professors, researchers and students are engaged in, but a sampling of it is certainly possible. In that spirit, Kingston Life introduces you to a handful of research projects that are enhancing knowledge in their respective fields — and Kingston’s reputation as an intellectual powerhouse.


Earthquake-proof walls

Once in a while, a massive earthquake somewhere — this year it’s been Haiti, Chile, China — results in appalling loss of life, property and infrastructure. However, innovative geotechnical research at Royal Military College is helping to reduce the destruction in future earthquakes.
    Dr. Richard Bathurst, a civil engineering professor who teaches at both RMC and Queen’s, designs and tests retaining walls that are more earthquake-resistant than traditionally built walls.
    Retaining walls shore up earth and loose rocks around things such as bridge foundations, railway embankments, basements, reservoirs and underground parking garages. If a retaining wall is improperly designed and built, the violent back-and-forth movement of an earthquake will cause the mass of soil behind the wall to shift and ram into it, repeatedly for the duration of the quake, and damage or destroy the structure.
    One way to build a solid retaining wall in an earthquake zone is to make it really thick. But this is expensive, because such walls require tonnes of material are time-consuming to erect. Plus, if an earthquake damages the wall enough to make it unsafe, it’s hard to repair or tear down.
    Some of the alternative solutions Bathurst is testing are surprisingly simple. One involves sticking what is basically a sheet of Styrofoam — technically, expanded polystyrene, or EPS — up to a metre thick between the wall and the soil behind it. In an earthquake, the foam acts as a flexible buffer between the moving mass of earth and the wall.
    “It’s like a shock absorber in your car,” says Bathurst. “In an earthquake it can reduce the impact load by 50 per cent.” 
    Another way to reinforce retaining walls is far less intuitive. To picture how it works, imagine building a 10-metre-high wall out of concrete Lego bricks the size of steamer trunks. First, lay down one or two courses of bricks and dump soil behind them to a level just below the top of the bricks. Next, grab a one-metre-wide, seven-metre-long strip of plastic snow fencing — the stuff that comes in a grid pattern like chicken wire — and lay it down with one end on top of the bricks and the rest projecting out on the soil, perpendicular to the wall. Bury the fencing. Pack the soil down tight. Then lay another course or two of bricks, squishing them together so the plastic fence-ends are solidly sandwiched between the bricks. Repeat until your wall is done.
    Although your finished wall is not particularly thick, chances are it will withstand an earthquake because the buried plastic reinforcement strips attached to the bricks are, in effect, making the soil an integral part of the wall structure. You’ve got a flexible, strong brick-and-earth wall just over seven metres thick, only at a fraction of the cost.
    Bathurst tests these wall-building techniques using 1.5-metre-high scale models built atop a hydraulic three-metre “shaking table” that can simulate the side-to-side action of earthquakes of differing magnitudes. Located in a cavernous basement lab at RMC, the device was designed by Bathurst in 2005 and is the only such facility in Canada used specifically for testing earth structures (such as retaining walls). It allows Bathurst to develop computer models that geoengineers around the world use to numerically simulate the behaviour of their own retaining-wall systems during an earthquake and design optimal walls for different quake zones.


Disraeli project

At his political peak in the 1870s, Benjamin Disraeli was the most powerful man on earth. Fuelled by ambition, a ferocious intelligence and political shrewdness, he had risen from humble beginnings to become a flamboyant dandy, popular novelist, parliamentarian, prime minister, statesman and a darling of Queen Victoria. Together, the two ruled the British Empire at the height of its globe-spanning imperialist glory. 
    Though Disraeli never penned an autobiography or memoir, the trajectory of his remarkable life can be traced through his 18 novels, eight non-fiction books, political speeches and letters. These, along with countless contemporary newspaper accounts and dozens of biographies written before and since his death in 1881, make Disraeli one of the best-known and most-studied political figures of 19th-century Europe. Today his surviving correspondence is scattered in some 300 university archives all over the world, but the biggest single collection of his letters — 13,000 photocopied and microfiched copies of them — resides in a set of filing cabinets and a computer database in a small, book-lined office at Queen’s University.
    For more than three decades, this room in Watson Hall has headquartered the Disraeli Project, a unique exercise whose purpose is to collect, transcribe, catalogue and publish as many of the great man’s letters as possible. To date the project has produced eight volumes — the most recent appeared last October — and earned accolades from scholars around the world. The tomes are marvels of detail. Each letter, long or short, is carefully and painstakingly annotated and/or footnoted to illuminate as precisely as possible the people, places and events described in the letter. Scholars appreciate this precision, as it sometimes helps them fill in critical explanatory gaps in their own research.
    The endeavour began in 1972, when John Matthews and D.M. Schurman, Queen’s professors of English and history respectively, set out to collaborate on some Disraeli research for a sabbatical project. The pair discovered some previously unpublished letters in England, which led them to launch the Disraeli Project proper in 1975. For the next five years Matthews, Schurman and a small team of scholars hunted down new letters, photocopied and transferred them to word-processed and microfiche documents, unearthed other sources of Disraeli-related information, published a newsletter and generally laid the all-important groundwork for the present-day enterprise.
    The first two volumes appeared in 1982, by which time the original funding had run out. At that point, Mel Weibe, an English professor who had joined the Disraeli Project in 1979, took over as general editor, reorganized the project with a skeleton staff and oversaw the publication of three more volumes. Weibe also orchestrated a new funding structure that combined federal monies with various corporate and individual donations.
    Today, Michel Pharand, the project’s director-designate, works with co-editor and researcher Ellen Hawman, a 20-year project veteran, to keep the Disraeli ball rolling. They are assisted by Pharand’s wife, Ginger, who handles some research and fundraising, and the indefatigable Weibe, who is officially retired but still comes in a couple of hours a week.
    “We’re solving mysteries all the time,” says Hawman, describing the historical detective work necessary to shed light on the context and details of each letter. “You have to be kind of an obsessive personality to do this job for any length of time.”
    Volume 9, covering the years 1865-67, is due out in 2012.    


Pumpkins & chemicals

Most people associate pumpkins with Halloween and Thanksgiving. Dr. Barbara Zeeb sees the plants as conduits for sucking dangerous chemicals out of the ground.
  It’s been known for years that, through their roots, plants can take up and store trace amounts of hazardous metals like nickel, arsenic and cadmium from contaminated soil. However, scientists assumed that plants weren’t capable of doing the same thing with a class of hazardous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which include well-known and cancer-causing substances such as PCBs (which are used in electrical transformers) and DDT (the infamous and widely banned) pesticide.
    Zeeb is a biologist who is a Canada Research Chair in Biotechnologies and the Environment at Royal Military College. Since 2003 she has been quietly disproving that assumption about POPs. While working on a soil cleanup project on an abandoned military installation in the Canadian sub-Arctic, Zeeb discovered that some sedges (grass-like plants) were also taking up PCBs. Some evidence existed that pumpkins could take up PCBs, so Zeeb began working with them.
    In fact, it’s not the jack-o’-lantern part of the pumpkin plant that does the taking up, nor can every type of pumpkin do it. Some sub-varieties of pumpkin do it better than others, and most of the absorbed chemicals end up sequestered in the stem near the root. Knowing this, Zeeb prunes the plant’s flowers to prevent pumpkin growth and cause the plant to become thicker and bushier. Judicious pruning and encouraging secondary root growth more than doubles the contaminant uptake of each plant.
    Zeeb is experimenting with pumpkins at test sites in Etobicoke and Lindsay, where she’s growing the plants in 250-square-metre plots fenced off from people, animals and birds. Fully grown plants are harvested and composted on-site. Composting reduces the volume of plant material and produces a concentrated volume of PCBs contained within organic matter that can be transported off site to be disposed of via incineration or other methods.
    Using pumpkins or other plants to remove or stabilize PCBs and other harmful chemicals in soil, a process known as phytoextraction, is relatively cheap and leaves the soil intact. Still, the method is not perfect. It can’t remove all the contaminants from the soil, and because plants take months to grow, the pumpkin solution is not suitable for areas where contaminants need to be removed quickly. But Zeeb’s initial tests suggest that pumpkin phytoextraction may allow certain temperate-zone brownfield sites to be cleaned up to an industrial, commercial or residential standard. They might even be used for parkland — but not agriculture.
    “We’re looking to target remote sites that don’t need to be cleaned up by tomorrow and where the contaminant level isn’t tremendously high,” says Zeeb.


Renewable energy

In Kingston, Queen’s and RMC are typically the places where research happens, but St. Lawrence College recently entered the game. Thanks to a $2.3-million grant last winter from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), which normally funds university research, St. Lawrence is developing a pair of applied research programs whose key features include support for lead researchers and faculty involvement, equipment and employment for student assistants.
    The first area of focus for the college is renewable energy. As gas and electricity costs rise, energy efficiency is becoming a high priority for households, governments and the private sector, and St. Lawrence is a provincial leader in training students to be wind-turbine technicians, energy-systems technologists (such as solar panel installers) and, next year, geothermal technicians. In other words, the college is turning out the people who will implement the various renewable energy technologies set to replace Ontario’s greenhouse-gas-spewing, coal-fired electrical generation plants that Queen’s Park has vowed to phase out by 2014. The province’s Feed-in-Tariff program, which subsidizes new renewable energy installations, has also bolstered the industry and increased the need for experienced technicians.
    While other Ontario colleges teach elements of renewable energy technology — one might teach solar, another geothermal — St. Lawrence is unique in that it offers expertise in all areas. The applied research program in renewable energy will kick off with a project at Trenton Cold Storage — a firm that owns and operates six high-capacity refrigeration facilities in Trenton, Ont. — where students will explore ways to reduce the energy consumption of the firm’s buildings and cooling compressors.
    If all goes well, the project will help the company reduce its energy bills and result in a proof-of-concept that can be replicated elsewhere. It will also exemplify what college-level applied research is all about: tweaking existing technologies in new ways that benefit individual businesses and the economy.
    It will also provide students with important real-world experience. “When they graduate, they’ll hit the ground running,” says Cam McEachern, St. Lawrence’s Director of Research, who has helped to secure funding for the programs. “Employers need people who can problem-solve.”
    St. Lawrence College also plans to use its NSERC grant to develop a Behavioural Treatment and Research Centre that will tap into the college’s strong behavioural psychology program. The practical object in this case will be to help children and families in the Kingston region deal with various behavioural challenges. On the research side, the centre will contribute to the human sciences field by developing and testing new counselling techniques. Unlike the renewable energy program, whose primary partners will be small- and medium-sized businesses, the behavioural program will work with social agencies such as the Children’s Aid Society.


Prosthetic feet

Tim Bryant is, quite literally, putting his best foot forward. Since 1998, Bryant, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Queen’s and an internationally recognized expert in knee biomechanics, has been the scientific lead of a team that is creating the Niagara Foot, a prosthetic for amputees in the developing world who have lost feet to disease, accidents or land mines.
    There are multiple challenges associated with making an artificial foot for users in Bryant’s target market. A big one is to keep the cost low. Villagers in rural Afghanistan or Cambodia can’t afford the sorts of high-tech carbon-fibre devices available in developed countries, which may cost well over $1,000. The Niagara Foot will sell for about $250, and that cost will be subsidized by the non-governmental aid organizations that distribute the device.
    The foot also has to be both durable and simply designed. It can’t be made of parts that might break or get lost, since replacements or repair may not be readily available. Yet another hurdle is making sure the foot suits the conditions it will be used in. For instance, on flat ground — as was the case in a region in Thailand where an earlier version of the foot was tested — a springy foot will allow people to walk comfortably, but in hilly country it might prove problematic, even dangerous, when going downhill. Finding the optimal degree of flexibility is key.
    In reality, the Niagara Foot doesn’t resemble a human foot at all. It’s more like a one-piece, hard-plastic insole, called the “keel,” which has a flexible protruding piece with an inset screw-hole that allows the prosthetic to be attached to a socket on the lower-limb stump. The prosthetic itself doesn’t make contact with the ground; rather, the user slips a custom-made urethane rubber cover, called a cosmesis, over it so both can fit snugly into a shoe. The covers can usually be made locally. Similarly, by strategically shaving or filing off a bit of the foot here and there, local prosthetists can fine-tune the foot for a precise fit that allows its user to walk comfortably and more or less normally. 
    An earlier, American-made version of the Niagara foot is now used around the world. The current version — the 20th version of model two — is being tested at the Universidad Don Bocso in El Salvador, where Laura Towsley, a chemical engineering student from Queen’s who works with Bryant, is collaborating with Salvadorian students and prosthetists to determine how it performs in the field. The results from El Salvador help Bryant and his partners — Niagara Prosthetics and Orthotics in St. Catharines; Ontario; DuPont Canada, which supplies the specially engineered Hytrel® plastic that the foot is made from; and Centennial Molded Products in Mississauga, which manufactures the device — make further tweaks that make the foot even better.   
    Bryant says the Niagara Foot is “nearing commercialization.” kl