NAIT receives $3M for research in boreal reclamation, oil sands tailings and wireless tech

Three applied research projects awarded grants

Helping industry reclaim former oil and gas sites in northern Alberta with native plants is just one of three NAIT initiatives to receive a total of almost $3 million in federal funding.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) awarded funding on June 13 for the following projects:

  • NAIT’s Centre for Boreal Research in Peace River ($1.75 million) will create a service centre to put its plant and seed technology research into practice, working with reforestation companies, the oil and gas and forestry industries to reclaim disturbed sites using native plants.
  • The Centre for Oil Sands Sustainability ($1 million) will create the NSERC Industrial Research Chair for Colleges in Oil Sands Tailings Management. Dr. Heather Kaminsky was appointed chair for a five-year term.
  • The Centre for Sensors and System Integration ($149,438) will measure and test signal strength and other characteristics for wireless communication for the Internet of Things and other technologies.

Restoring native plants

seed planting in the borealKevin Kemball, director of business development for the Centre for Boreal Research, says the new funding will improve how researchers help industry and, ultimately, enhance biodiversity in northern Alberta.

The funding will allow the centre have a real impact on the use of native plants in reclaiming and restoring disturbed forests by working with companies that provide and grow seeds, prepare the sites and do the reclamation work itself.

“This gives us the room to develop those pieces like the training, like programs to bring down the cost of handling and storing seeds so industry can better use them,” Kemball says.

There is a huge demand for native shrubs and plants from industries like forestry and oil and gas looking to reclaim sites they’ve disturbed. That demand will only grow over the next 20 years as more oil and gas projects wrap up, he says.

“Biodiversity is another big driver for this work.”

The centre has started working with Indigenous communities in northern Alberta and British Columbia to identify, collect, clean, store and grow native plant species in the centre’s nurseries. “It’s all about building capacity in the north to do this work.”

In Alberta, up to 80 million trees a year are grown for the forestry industry, but there has never been a commercial need for other plants and shrubs in reforestation since only the trees are removed. But oil and gas reclamation requires trees, shrubs and even soil to be restored, creating a need for identifying, gathering, cleaning and growing other kinds of seedlings.

“A lot of the cultural value for Indigenous communities is in these other species,” he adds. “Biodiversity is another big driver for this work.”

Solving the challenge of oil sands tailings

Dr. Heather Kaminsky in her lab at NAITDr. Heather Kaminsky’s work focuses on separating and cleaning the water and mud that make up the huge accumulation of tailings left behind when bitumen is removed from oil sands. There are currently about 1.2 billion cubic metres of fluid tailings in Alberta.

Kaminsky’s NSERC chair will allow her to delve deeper into the issue, bringing together a consortium of oil sands operators, chemical vendors, geotechnical engineers and researchers to work together on solutions.

“We want to look at it holistically so we’re getting at all those pieces. We want something that works that [chemical vendors] can sell and that we can show operators so it can be implemented,” she says. “I’m really excited because this is an opportunity for NAIT to be a collaborative hub in this area.”

Testing wireless signals

Wireless Communications Technology at NAITNAIT’s Centre for Sensors and System Integration will use its funding to acquire equipment to test and measure wireless signals for the evaluation of technologies such as the Internet of Things.

“On paper, things work nicely in an isolated environment, but you need to put them in a real environment,” says Peter Laffin, the centre’s director of business development. “This will allow us to learn about what’s actually going on in the air, especially when you put a lot of devices in the same space. There can be interferences and loss of signal. It really helps us figure out for our clients what is actually happening.”

All three projects were funded through NSERC’s Colleges and Community Innovation program.

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