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By Jeff Green

The federal government is investing more than $5.5 million into multidisciplinary research led by Memorial that focuses on techniques and technologies to aid in oil spill response in Canada.

Six new projects, funded under Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Multi-Partner Research Initiative (MPRI), aim to ensure Canadians have access to the best scientific information and methods available to respond to oil spills by supporting collaborative research among oil spill experts both in Canada and worldwide.

The funding was announced on Sept. 6 by Jonathan Wilkinson, minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard. Project summaries can be found here.

“Memorial’s unique physical location along the edge of the North Atlantic Ocean provides our researchers and graduate students with tremendous research opportunities,” said Dr. Neil Bose, vice-president (research), who is leading a project that is receiving $1,380,000.

Dr. Neil Bose
Dr. Neil Bose
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

He is the principal investigator on the project, Oil Spill Reconnaissance and Delineation Through Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Technology.

“With more than 40 per cent of Memorial’s research ocean-related, our teams of multidisciplinary researchers are leading important work across all disciplines, including in the areas of engineering, technology and science,” he said. “Support through the MPRI program will allow Memorial to further enhance and expand marine and ocean-related research, develop new technologies and improve scientific knowledge in the critical area of research related to oil spills in the ocean.”

Multidisciplinary research

In addition to Dr. Bose, the following researchers from the faculties of Engineering and Applied Science and Science will receive funding:

  • Dr. Baiyu (Helen) Zhang, Canada Research Chair in Coastal Environmental Engineering, associate professor, Department of Civil Engineering, and acting associate dean (research) in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, is receiving $1,690,000 for a project titled, Analysis of technical effectiveness of using dispersants to treat oil spills in Canadian waters; and $250,000 for a project titled, Natural attenuation and trajectory forecasting of dilbit spilled in Chinese/Canadian waters;
  • Dr. Uta Passow, Canada Research Chair in Biological Oceanographic Processes, Department of Ocean Sciences, Faculty of Science, is receiving $791,000, for a project titled, Understanding interactions between oil, dispersants, exopolymers and particles for improvement of marine oil spill response;
  • Dr. Bing Chen, professor, Department of Civil Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, is awarded $759,795, for a project titled, Improved decanting and oily waste management strategies for marine oil spill response; and,
  • Dr. Tahir Husain, professor, Department of Civil Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, is awarded $700,000, for a project titled, Development of improved adsorption technologies for oil spill response.

The MPRI aims to improve collaboration with oil response experts around the world, advancing oil spill research in Canada and help minimize the environmental impacts of oil spills.

Collaborative research

“Oil is a very complex substance group, and biological marine systems are also very complex, making predictions of consequences when oil accidents occur in the ocean, difficult,” Dr. Passow told the Gazette.

“The wide collaborations enabled by the ambitious MPRI program will allow us to develop oil spill response plans. Our group specifically is focussed on the interactions between oil and marine particles, like algae, feces or bacteria and how such interactions affects the fate of the oil.”

Training future generations

Dr. Zhang told the Gazette that in harsh environments such as the North Atlantic Ocean, traditional offshore oil spill containment methods are severely hindered due to low temperature, rough seas, strong wind and other factors.

Dr. Baiyu (Helen) Zhang
Dr. Baiyu (Helen) Zhang
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“The use of dispersants has been accepted as a key countermeasure for oil spills and has been listed in spill contingency plans in many countries around the world,” she explained.

“With the support from the MPRI program, our group at Memorial can engage internationally recognized expertise, facilities and protocols to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of selected dispersants as marine oil spill treating agents in Canadian waters.”

She says the research will help enhance dispersant testing in this country and train a new generation of researchers. She also says it will help regulators and responders make science-based operational and regulatory decisions on dispersant approval and usage, expand Canada’s “tool kit” for safe and effective oil spill response and facilitate the preservation of Canadian marine ecosystems.

The Memorial-led research projects will help improve knowledge of how oil spills behave, how to contain them, clean them up and minimize their environmental impacts.

‘Exceptional opportunity’

Dr. Chen, director of the Northern Persistent Organic Pollution Control Laboratory at Memorial, says the MPRI program provides him “an exceptional opportunity to boost our research, train our students, expand our partnerships and grow our impacts in Canada and worldwide.”

“Through these projects, we believe that our research will not only advance oil spill knowledge and response technologies, but also provide important scientific evidence to support oil spill policy- and decision-making,” he said.

“The outcomes will also help our industry and government in achieving sustainable development goals and transitioning to a clean economy.”

“Memorial University has created a truly international atmosphere in nanotechnology-based research in material science and engineering.” — Dr. Tahir Husain

Dr. Husain says the MPRI funding will help develop and deploy an on-site decanting technology in the storage vessels during offshore oil spills.

“This technology will help in treating emulsified oil collected in the vessels at the spill site to a level that the decanted water can safely be discharged into the oceans, thus maximizing the efficiency of the cleanup under harsh environment,” he told the Gazette.

“A joint research initiative with the University of Toronto and the Commonwealth and Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia, led by Memorial University has created a truly international atmosphere in nanotechnology-based research in material science and engineering.”

Placentia Bay research

In addition to the MPRI funding, the federal government also announced more than $1.8 million to support marine environmental data collection initiatives in Placentia Bay, N.L., led by a number of several organizations including Memorial.

Under the Coastal Environmental Baseline Program, Memorial researchers are receiving more than $890,000 in support.

Full project summaries can be found here.

Drs. Rachel Sipler, Canada Research Chair in Ocean Biogeochemistry, Department of Ocean Sciences, and Dr. Shawn Leroux, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, and Dr. Charles Mather and Dr. Rodolphe Devillers, Department of Geography, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, are each leading important projects in Placentia Bay.

Dr. Rachel Sipler
Dr. Rachel Sipler
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Those projects range from coastal habitat mapping to collecting data to characterize the current state of freshwater and estuarine ecosystems.

“The Placentia Bay project is an extraordinarily important one in the context of global understandings of marine debris and marine plastics, and is being led by Jessica Melvin, a graduate of Memorial and the University Centre of the Westfjords in Iceland,” Dr. Mather said.

The federal government says the Coastal Environmental Baseline Program, which is part of Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan, is helping to collect wide-ranging scientific data in six marine ecosystems with high vessel traffic and coastline development.

More about the federal investment is available online.

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