Professors and Research

Speeding Bullet

Space junk may sound worthless, but the ever-growing collection of debris in Earth's orbit threatens to cause billions of dollars of damage. Traveling at speeds of up to 9 miles a second, even a piece of debris a few centimeters in diameter could destroy a satellite. The best way to test materials that could withstand such collisions is to re-create similar conditions on Earth – by firing a bullet. But so far, the fastest speed produced by conventional guns is 4.3 miles per second. Enter Mechanical Engineering Prof. Andrew Higgins of Montreal’s McGill University. With funding from the Canadian Space Agency, Higgins and his team have developed a hypervelocity gun barrel surrounded with explosives that when detonated, will squeeze projecting gases to extremely high pressure along the entire length of the barrel as the bullet moves through it. So far, the device has matched the previous speed record, and Higgins hopes to double that result with tests starting this summer. – Pierre Home-Douglas

Engineering Faculty Wins Multiple CFI Awards

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Research to Reduce Global Energy Consumption

>When the U.S. Department of Energy announced the goal of replacing light bulbs by 2025 with solid state lighting that draws on electricity converted directly from semiconductors, Professor Zetian Mi answered the challenge.

Mi has established the only facility at a Canadian university for researching gallium nitride (GaN) nanoscale materials, making him a leading researcher in the field of GaN semiconductors. Semiconductors such as these could provide an inexpensive, long-lasting light source that is 50% more energy-efficient than current technology. “Since almost 20% of global electricity use is due to lighting, the energy savings would be significant,” Mi says. Mi, who was recently named a Hydro-Québec Nano-Engineering Scholar, is exploring inexpensive fabrication strategies that involve growing highly efficient nanostructures.

Excerpt reprinted from the fall 2009 issue of the Dean’s Report. See Reducing Global Energy Consumption [.pdf] for complete story.

New Nanomaterial Manufacturing Techniques

Professor Mathieu Brochu's research explores methods of manipulating and applying nanomaterials for industrial use.
In particular, he has taken on the challenge of using nanomaterials to manufacture large objects.

A Canada Research Chair in Manufacturing Nanomaterials as well as a Hydro-Québec Nano-Engineering Scholar, Brochu, says that fabricating laboratory-scale nanomaterials is relatively easy, but making large-scale components is another matter. He and his team of graduate students are investigating ways of using nanocladding to heighten products’ toughness and strength. This entails using nanostructures on the surfaces of components that are made of conventional materials. Brochu is particularly proud of his team for engineering an advanced welding process capable of depositing nanomaterials on a surface.

Excerpt reprinted from the fall 2009 issue of the Dean’s Report. See Manipulating Nanomaterials [.pdf] for the complete story.

On the Frontiers of Medicine and Engineering

Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Professor Sam Musallam works in the esoteric, cutting-edge field of mind/computer interfaces and robotic prosthetic limbs. His eventual goal? Nothing less than the Bionic Woman dream of creating thought-controlled, cybernetic limbs for paraplegics and amputees.

When Musallam joined the Engineering Faculty in December 2006 he was also named Director of McGill's Neural Prosthetics Laboratory and an Associate Member of the Faculty of Medicine’s Physiology Department. In the past, Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physiology were separated by miles of cross-disciplinary no-man's-land. A graduate of the University of Toronto with an undergraduate degree in physics and a PhD in neuroscience, he later spent time at the famous Anderson Lab at the California Institute of Technology as a post-doctoral fellow, where he began his research into mind/computer interfaces.

"This was a great field to apply the physics, the engineering, all the knowledge that I'd gained,"he says. "It was a great way to apply, or at least think about applications of the findings in neuroscience of visually guided behaviours, and to apply them to the clinic." Visually guided behaviour, according to Musallam, is the complex series of neurological processes which take place in your brain every time you decide to reach for something. "Once you decide to pick up a pen from your desk, for example, a whole cascade of brain operations go off which generate a motor plan which instructs your hand and arm exactly where and how to move. And all this all happens in milliseconds, it's not available to conscious perception."

Musallam and his team are currently studying how these operations are encoded in the parietal and pre-motor cortexes, the higher-order cognitive areas of the brain that actually calculate how you're going to reach for something, and also form the actual intention to reach. “In paralyzed patients, with, say, a spinal cord lesion or peripheral nerve damage, we think they can still form the intention to reach, but they can't actually go ahead and do so. My work is trying to understand the signals in the brain that form the intentions and writing algorithms to drive robots to respond to these intentions."

Musallam and his team of graduate students are working on every angle of the problem, from neuroscience to the development of algorithms and software that mimic human nerve impulses to the design of the actual robotic limbs themselves."I'm interested in the global picture because that's what's necessary to realize a complete system," he says.

Source: Mark Shainblum, McGill Reporter, December 6, 2007,

Applauding Engineering Faculty Researchers

Mechanical Engineering Department

Mechanical Engineering Department Professor Pascal Hubert, and graduate students, Vahid Mirjalili and Loleï Khoun at a February 2008 event that highlighted some of the better-known examples of products made with sophisticated composite materials.

More than Just Water!

Civil Engineering Department Professor Van-Thanh-Van Nguyen is a man in demand – which is no surprise considering his current research focuses on the hot-button issue of how climate change affects water resources. Fresh off a plane from Asia, where he had just delivered keynote addresses in Malaysia and Vietnam, the Endowed Brace Professor Chair in Civil Engineering faced an interview with the McGill Reporter first thing Monday morning. Unfazed by jetlag, Nguyen was keen to talk all things water, turning a 30-minute interview into an hour-long discusion/debate between himself, this reporter and Claudio Calligaris, the photographer. Van-Thanh-Van Nguyen, who also serves as Director of the Faculty of Engineering's renowned Brace Centre for Water Resources Management, is more aware than most of complexity concerning the simple element of water, and no one is more eager to share his knowledge.

What is the Brace Centre?

The Brace Centre, which is located on McGill's MacDonald Campus, is a collection of McGill researchers from different faculties who are involved in understanding and improving water resources management, both in Canada and internationally.

What is Brace's greatest strength?

Our interdisciplinary approach allows us to tackle even the most complex water issues in great depth. We also have a very good combination of people, with senior professors and younger ones recently hired by McGill. Since last year, with the addition of new members, we now cover a wider scope of water issues although our main focus is on water, agriculture and climate change.

We recently held our annual Brace Reasearch Day and I was extremely impressed with the variety of student projects and the quality of their presentations. They covered everything from climate change and new irrigation methods to greywater and greenhouse gases from reservoirs.

Here in Quebec, it is easy to be complacent about a water crisis. How readily available is water?

We are lucky we have so much water, but we also have real issues in Canada. Geographically, precipitation across Canada is not uniform, so we have severe drought problems in the Prairies. Also, most of our rivers run north but the bulk of our population lives south so fresh water isn't nearly as accessible as people think.

Can't we just divert some of that water up north to quench the parched areas of the country?

It's not easy. Personally, the main issue is our ability to maintain environmental sustainability and the natural equilibrium. This natural equilibrium has been established over millions of years; I'm not so sure if we should be tampering with that. If you remove water from one place, what new problems are you creating and how prepared are you to manage those new challenges?

It sounds like it is a very complex issue.

It is, and necessarily so. Everyone is now talking about integrated water resources management. We can't only look at these issues in one way, we have to bring in other factors such as socio-economic and cultural implications, and legal and ethical issues while looking at complete physical and biological ecosystems. As a shared resource, water creates a whole set of extremely complex issues and is just one component of a much bigger system.

Does it get more complex globally?

Absolutely. In many developing countries they just don't have the ability to develop. It's not a question of lack of water – some countries with a lot of water resources don't have the means to develop that resource. Niger is a perfect example – very high water resources, but they don't have the necessary political system governing them.

The management structure of water resources is a big issue. In Vietnam there are so many departments dealing with water that overlap and they don't want to share the knowledge or power. It makes it very difficult to make any progress.

What else is Brace focusing on?

We have a group of researchers looking at extreme weather, mostly floods and how we deal with floods and extreme drought. Part of our research is in predicting or forecasting these types of events and understanding what are the main factors behind floods and drought. We also are looking at managing or minimizing the impact when these extreme weather events occur.

How easy is it to predict extreme weather events or long-term trends?

No two storms are alike, so forecasting is rather difficult. One of our long-term goals is to provide a reliable or physically plausible scenario for things like precipitation or temperature over the next 100 years. This will allow officials to make an assessment and apply this to the planning of things like transportation and public health.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the state of the world's water supply?

[Laughing] I'm an engineer and engineers see themselves as problem-solvers. I don't know if I'm an optimist because we are facing some big, big challenges, but I'm still looking for solutions.

But are there really technological solutions, when some of the big problems include the global population growth and no coercive pricing to get people to moderate their water consumption?

Sure, here in Quebec we wash our cars using drinking water because we think it's free. But it isn't. And people in the government are starting to talk about installing water meters in industries to try and control their water use.
Pricing it is a very difficult issue. In countries where people pay for water, when the prices go up, the poor go thirsty. In Malaysia, they hired a French company to manage their water resources and they tried to make a profit.
The question then becomes, is water a public good or an economic good? What happens when you try to make a profit with water?
Again, it comes down to integrated water resources management. You can't just implement water pricing without having a clear understanding of the potential problems that will arise.

Of course, we're back to where we started, aren't we? In order to look at things like climate change and water resources management, we need to take an integrated, global approach that includes issues of property rights, human behaviour and population control.

Source: Neale McDevitt, McGill Reporter, March 20, 2008.

Solving Our Water Woes

In May 2000, deadly E.coli bacteria from manure spread at a nearby farm seeped into the town well in Walkerton, Ont. Seven people eventually died and another 2,500 became ill.

Avoiding another tragedy is what drives Chemical Engineering Department Professor Nathalie Tufenkji, who also serves as Associate Director of the Faculty of Engineering's renowned Brace Centre for Water Resources Management. The Centre is located on McGill's MacDonald Campus. Tufenkji and her research team work to develop novel approaches to detecting pathogens in water and to address the myriad issues concerning the transport and fate of groundwater contaminants. As nearly 9 million Canadians rely on groundwater for their domestic water supply, the work is critical.

One area of focus for Tufenkji's team is the behaviour of microbial pathogens (bacteria, viruses and protozoa) that leach into groundwater from sources like manure in agricultural applications, wildlife excrement, leaching landfills and leaking septic tanks.

"We're one of the few groups working with the Walkerton strain, E. coli 0157:H7, and studying its behaviour in soils," Tufenkji said. "If an agricultural producer is going to lay out manure, they have to understand the limitations of the land application. So we're designing experiments to study the behaviour of the micro organisms in different soils to identify those limitations and better gauge the potential for contamination of the drinking water supply."

The group exploring the behaviour and toxicity of engineered nanomaterials as their use becomes more widespread without a clear understanding of how they, too, may act as hazardous contaminants. "We're seeing nanomaterials in everything from rubber tires to cosmetics. And so there's a growing interest in trying to understand the environmental and health implications," Tufenkji said. "We already know that there are health impacts with certain nanomaterials. But there are so many new ones coming out, with so many new properties that we don't fully understand. There could be huge problems down the road."

Pathogen detection, through the development of carefully calibrated biosensors that detect micro-organisms in specific concentrations, is another project the team has been working on. "The biosensor works nicely with the Walkerton bug, and we're now aiming to increase the biosensor's sensitivity and want to start looking at detecting other pathogens like protozoa, viruses as well as beneficial bacteria that we actually want in some systems." What's more, the utility of these biosensors has the potential to go beyond groundwater testing. Once refined, the biosensors could be useful in detecting contaminants for the food and beverage industry and bigger water treatment facilities.

What's next for Tufenkji? She's started thinking about how to remediate Quebec's latest water woe, the blue-green algae that's affecting dozens of lakes. "Were not looking at preventing the problem since it already exists. Rather, we're looking at how can we treat it," Tufenkji said. "Stay tuned, I'm working on it."

Source: Allison Flynn, McGill Reporter, March 20, 2008.

Research Talks

April 2008
Sam Musallam:
Helping the Paralysed [.pdf]

January 2008
Micheal Jemtrud:
Architecture, Design, and Environments [.pdf]
December 2007
Geza Joos:
Sustainability and Alternative Energy [.pdf]
December 2007
Nathalie Tufenkji:
Protecting Our Environment [.pdf]