Keeping it clean, for our lungs’ sake

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

In the interest of avoiding a time when air pollution levels make smoking a healthy alternative, Dr. Alex De Visscher and his colleagues are researching innovative clean air technologies at the University of Calgary.

Though he noted local air pollution levels are sufficiently low now, especially compared to Vancouver and Toronto, De Visscher said expansion of the oil industry in the province may jeopardize our air quality. The Canada Research Chair, aided by private sector funding, is working on two unique methods for greatly reducing harmful industrial emissions — biofiltration and ultraviolet technology.

The former operates by running emissions through a roughly one meter thick mass of what is essentially compost.

“If you think about what compost is, it’s garden waste or kitchen waste that is decomposed by bacteria, so you’ve got bacteria that are very good at decomposing things,” said De Visscher.

These micro-organisms, so proficient at decomposing household waste, could be a great asset if able to use industrial air pollution molecules as food, he related.

The ultraviolet treatment method, explained De Visscher, operates by passing pollutant molecules through ultraviolet light, the high-energy photons of which break down chemicals. The hope is the pollutant molecules will break down to the point where their constituent parts react with the oxygen and convert to carbon dioxide.

De Visscher and three other U of C professors have been planning the research necessary to develop these technologies for roughly one year. This has meant reviewing the existing literature and acquiring the necessary funding. The one to two year experimental phase, which is about to start, will cost roughly $250,000, including equipment, students and support from a post-doctoral fellow, said De Visscher.

Raising money for this project wasn’t too arduous.

“When industry is confronted with a specific problem it’s not so difficult,” he said. “If it’s not tied specifically to a particular problem, it’s much more difficult to get funding.”

The specific problem in this case revolves around the process undertaken to make natural gas usable. The fuel is usually moist and must be dehydrated in order to work properly in the pipes. Dehydration results in the production of benzene, which must be dealt with.

De Visscher further explained how to successfully garner funding for a project.

“Often what we do is we start with some funding from government, do some preliminary work, then when the first results look promising, we can go to industry and ask for additional funding from them,” he said.

Should De Visscher and his colleagues prove successful in their research and develop a way to reduce air pollution, they will likely approach industry to produce the technology.

De Visscher noted that biofiltration, due to its low development cost, could feasibly be used on a small scale. Ultraviolet treatment, however, poses greater problems for smaller applications.

“The limitation there is that you need electricity locally,” he said. “A lot of rigs don’t have electricity locally, so you would have to install a small generator.”

The generator, installed to reduce pollution, would itself release unwanted entities into the air, thereby denigrating its utility.

De Visscher’s teaching is closely tied to his research. One of his undergraduate courses, Chemical Engineering Kinetics, ENCH 421, shows students how to design reactors of various types — for refining plants, waste treatment, even for developing medicine. A graduate course he teaches is even more directly related to his research, instructing students on air-dispersion modeling, methods he employs in his own work.

Belgian by birth, De Visscher came to the U of C in 2005, having studied and worked at Ghent University. Initially intending to work in industry, he was drawn to research after completing his first thesis.

“[What] I find most gratifying is trying to, succeeding to, understand something that nobody else understood before, then writing it up in a paper and having it published in a scientific journal,” he explained.

Scientific journals are not the only place where De Visscher’s writing has appeared, however. An article he penned attempting to debunk global warming misinformation appeared on the Calgary Herald’s editorial pages June 9.

“It’s not the first time I tried to send them something, but it’s the first time they actually published mine,” he remarked.

The team working with De Visscher, who is a member of the chemical and petroleum engineering faculty, is comprised of Dr. Arindom Sen, from the same department, Dr. Danielle Marceau from geomatics engineering and the department of chemistry’s Dr. Cooper Langford.

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