Canada Foundation for Innovation awards over $2.3 million for 10 projects

Awards bring highest tech tools to push the frontiers of University of Calgary research

By Sean Myers

Jeffrey Priest, associate professor at the Schulich School of Engineering, will use the funding to help investigate the risk involved in removing gas hydrates from Arctic sediment through mining. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
Jeffrey Priest, associate professor at the Schulich School of Engineering, will use the funding to help investigate the risk involved in removing gas hydrates from Arctic sediment through mining. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Ten projects aimed at solving pressing global questions, from better health to new ways of looking at energy solutions, have received vital funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) that will push their work forward.

“When the country’s researchers have access to state-of-the-art tools and facilities, they can ask bold questions, find remarkable answers and apply them in new and often unexpected ways. Their discoveries and innovations further Canada’s reputation as a nation known for its research excellence,” says Gilles Patry, CFI president and CEO.

For the University of Calgary’s Jeffrey Priest, Canada Research Chair in Geomechanics of Gas Hydrates, this means funding to buy a unique piece of equipment called the PCATS: Triaxial apparatus that will further his study of methane gas hydrates locked in the ice in the Canadian Arctic — a potential clean source of energy that countries such as China, Japan, Korea and India are actively developing.

“This incredible support from CFI will allow us to continue to attract, support and retain the brightest minds, like Jeffrey and his colleagues, to the University of Calgary,” says Ed McCauley, vice-president (research) at the University of Calgary. “Our research, enabled by state-of-the-art infrastructure, will allow us to continue to address critical societal issues to benefit Canadians.”

‘Puts us right at the top of the game’

Priest notes that in his case, “the CFI’s support will put us right at the top of the game in terms of being able to understand what’s going on.” Priest, 49, an associate professor in the Schulich School of Engineering, came to Calgary from Britain about a year and a half ago to pursue his ground-breaking research.

Originally from Southampton, U.K., Priest helped develop the PCATS: Triaxial with a private company while in England. Now he wants to buy it for the University of Calgary to analyze sediment samples from the Arctic while preserving the natural, pressurized state they’re found in deep-water sediments and under the permafrost. The $224,676 he’s been awarded by the CFI will make purchasing this innovative equipment possible. Priest will also purchase a second piece of equipment that will replicate the pressurized samples for lab work.

Priest’s main area of interest in the research is in determining the risk involved in removing the gas hydrates from sediment through mining. Methane locked in the ice is a potential clean source of energy that Asia and the subcontinent are actively developing. But mining it poses potential dangers as the structure of the remaining sediment may be weakened to the point of causing significant landslides. Due to climate change, it’s a danger the planet could face even if the hydrates are never mined for commercial purposes.

Understanding geotechnical risk of Arctic warming

“For me there’s an important geo-hazard prospect,” says Priest. “The Arctic is warming, we know it’s warming. There are vast stores of these hydrates in the Arctic — there’s lots of it up there. If you start melting that ice, it may have a major impact.”

To illustrate the importance of this, Priest points to examples in ancient history where an expansion of methane hydrates in sediment due to warmer temperatures is believed to have caused massive landslides with devastating consequences.

While in England, Priest studied the possibility that warming methane hydrates helped create the conditions for the last of the historic Storegga slides that occurred along the coast of Norway and caused a 30-metre high tsunami that swept through Norway and Scotland more than 8,000 years ago. “That whole geotechnical risk is there and we are only just starting to look at it in detail,” said Priest.

Priest is part of the Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow research team which is developing the next generation of energy innovations the world so urgently needs.

In total, the CFI is contributing $27 million for tools and infrastructure through the John R. Evans Leaders Fund to 37 universities across Canada. An additional $8.1 million will support a portion of the operational costs of CFI-funded infrastructure on these campuses. Read the full announcement.

The other University of Calgary recipients of CFI funding:

Faculty of Science

  • Constance Finney: Analysis platform for pathogen-induced cellular responses, $254,373
  • Casey Hubert: Endospores, microbial ecology and bioengineering, $250,000

Schulich School of Engineering

  • Hossein Hejazi and Ian Gates: Understanding oilsands recovery processes by using lab-on-a-chip methods, $190,000
  • Seonghwan Kim: A multi-functional scanning probe microscope for high-resolution physical and chemical characterization of materials, $131,973

Cumming School of Medicine

  • Simon Hirota: Xenobiotic sensing and the regulation of chronic inflammation, $105,033
  • Craig Jenne: Intravital imaging of viral and bacterial infections, $350,000
  • Shan Liao: Lymphatic function in health and diseases, $200,000
  • Peng Huang: Infrastructure support for zebrafish vivarium and high resolution imaging to study muscular dystrophy, $394,192

Faculty of Kinesiology

  • Tannin Schmidt: Biophysical and biomechanical characterization of biomaterials and biofluids: engineering solutions for health, $251,000