Global economic challenge
Economic recessions, globalization, natural disasters and the explosion of information technology defined the fourth era of NRC's history. A heightened awareness of environmental, health and security issues were trumped only by the challenges Canadian industries faced in order to compete globally. As a result, NRC strengthened its commitment to Canadian business opportunities by creating sector-based institutes and growing the NRC Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP).
Fibre keeps data moving
Photonics for advanced communications
NRC launched the Solid State Opto-electonics Consortium of Canada, a network of industry, universities and other federal agencies to advance photonics and their applications in information and communications technologies.
In the 1980s, Canadian industry began testing light waves in optical fibres to carry data at super speeds across the continent. The science of harnessing light, or photonics, required advanced technologies to change light waves into electrical signals and back again for high-speed transmission.
NRC launched a scientific network to bring together this dynamic new research, which led to the birth of a collaboration to improve the research, testing and manufacturing of new devices. This legendary collaboration became the Solid State Opto-electronics Consortium of Canada, founded by NRC with industry, universities and other government agencies, and it evolved into a national photonics cluster.
A new generation of technologies resulted, which increased the capacity of data traffic through optical fibres. In turn, the Consortium led to a unique centre, a federal–provincial initiative housed at NRC to process photonics components for industry and university researchers. The Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre remains a world-class engineering and manufacturing facility. Photonics technologies are the backbone of Canada's telecommunications, support multi-institutional partnerships, and serve as an important Canadian export commodity.
CA*Net to CANARIE: Canada's research and innovation Internet
NRC helped launch CA*net 3, the world's first national optical R&D network, which used fibre optics to transmit data.
Today, people shop online, watch videos, send email and participate in social networks. But before vast amounts of information like live-satellite weather feeds, mining surveys and astronomy files could be transferred via the Internet, a robust network was essential for exchanging such data.
Canadian universities recognized that need and formed NetNorth in the 1980s, and a vision emerged to apply the TCP/IP interconnection standard to create CA*Net. NRC stepped in to invest and collaborate in establishing this national network, precipitated by a pressing need, as NRC had been chosen to archive and distribute Hubble Telescope's extensive data from outer space.
Although NRC had begun linking its computers to form a research collaboration network in the 1960s and 1970s, CA*Net, later strengthened by the CANARIE organization, had a broader scope. It involved partners from academia, government and industry. CANARIE burgeoned into an ultra-high-speed network, which provides a backbone moving massive data and connecting more than a million innovators and students from nearly 2 000 Canadian institutions. CANARIE exemplifies Canada's legacy as a digital forerunner with superior Internet infrastructure.
A driving force in green solutions
Contributions to transportation fuel cells
Since the late 1980s, NRC's fuel cell research has contributed substantially to the global effort to produce marketable fuel cells for everyday use.
For decades, fuel cells held great promise as a clean, sustainable energy source for transportation, among other purposes. However, building efficient and reliable fuel cells that were still cost-effective posed significant challenges for businesses and organizations worldwide.
Since the late 1980s, NRC's research into fuel cell technology has contributed substantially to the global effort to produce marketable fuel cells for everyday use. Working with industry and other R&D partners, NRC used technology to drive down cost and improve durability, while also providing critical testing and validation support. Such notable achievements have helped Canadian companies become leaders in early, niche markets with buses and forklifts, and attracted big automotive manufacturers, including Mercedes-Benz.
A highlight includes a fleet of hybrid fuel cell buses demonstrated during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 62 per cent compared to conventional technologies. Building on a longstanding reputation as a leader in hydrogen and fuel cell technology, NRC continues working to strengthen the automotive industry, engaging suppliers and manufacturers to overcome technical barriers to commercialization.
Turning the tideagainst deadly toxins
Safeguarding consumers and the shellfish industry
In 1987, during a record-setting 4-day investigation, NRC scientists identified a new shellfish toxin, domoic acid, responsible for the deaths of five people, the illnesses of hundreds of others, and the temporary closure of the East Coast shellfish industry.
In 1987, a health crisis erupted when several Canadians died and hundreds became ill from eating mussels. Surviving victims suffered symptoms ranging from severe gastroenteritis to neurological damage like memory loss. They had contracted a new syndrome called amnesic shellfish poisoning. As a result, Atlantic Canada's shellfish industry practically shut down overnight.
More than a dozen NRC scientists and librarians searched tirelessly to identify and isolate the outbreak-causing toxin. Within four days, NRC's team pinpointed the culprit: domoic acid, produced by algae, often seen as red tides.
NRC's team quickly established a rapid, domoic-acid screening test and transferred it to shellfish monitoring laboratories worldwide. Ever since, NRC's test has prevented potential poisonings globally. Subsequently, the team has identified additional toxins like North America's first case of diarrhetic shellfish poisoning, created a comprehensive set of certified reference materials, and developed more advanced tools and tests. Through these activities NRC continuously strengthens Canada's shellfish industry and contributes to safeguarding consumers with colleagues at lead organizations such as Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
NRC scientists collaborated with the RCMP to devise a unique fingerprint detection method using a sealed vacuum chamber and cyanoacrylate (super glue) fumes.
Prior to the 1990s, fingerprints left on challenging surfaces like skin or plastic bags rarely made it to law enforcement databases. These invisible or latent prints were difficult to find and document, especially without contaminating or destroying the evidence.
Without these prints, cases would often go unsolved. NRC scientists J.E. Watkins and Della Wilkinson, in collaboration with RCMP Sergeant A.H. Misner, devised a solution. In a sealed vacuum chamber, the innovators exposed the potential prints to cyanoacrylate (common superglue) fumes. While international researchers were exploring similar methods, the Canadian process excelled thanks to chemical treatments they applied afterwards causing the prints to glow.
This technique has assisted police in obtaining higher-quality prints, even from complex surfaces. It has helped law enforcement and forensic experts to identify or rule out suspects and solve cases. Most recently, the technique has revealed fingerprints on Canadian money and polymer banknotes.
Beating pollution to a pulp
Engineering xylanase enzymes for the pulp and paper industry
NRC tailored a xylanase enzyme that greatly reduces both the pollution discharged by pulp mills and the cost of producing pulp.
Chlorine effectively whitens pulp and paper, but creates vast amounts of toxic waste. In turn, that chlorinated waste threatens the environment and human health. Unfortunately, traditional Xylanase—an enzyme long considered a non-toxic and biodegradable alternative to bleach—fails to stand up to harsh conditions in the pulp and paper industry.
In the 1990s, Canadian researchers used protein engineering to modify amino acids in a certain family of xylanases. In so doing, they tailored a xylanase molecule to withstand the high temperatures and acidity levels of industrial processes. That NRC-designed enzyme is suited to pulp processing and reducing chlorine levels.
The modified enzyme has helped Canadian pulp mills decrease chlorinated waste by at least 4 000 tonnes per year, while saving industry many millions annually. After receiving approvals for commercial use of the enzyme in Canada and the United States, Iogen Inc. of Canada sold the modified enzyme internationally. That success attracted multinational Novozymes to pay more than $67 million to acquire Iogen's enzyme business and employees in 2013.
Crossing the strait and not-so-narrow
World's longest bridge over ice-covered waters
NRC was part of the largest bridge study ever—the 13-kilometre Confederation Bridge, the world's longest bridge over ice-covered waters.
The 1980s renewed a debate about establishing year-round access from Prince Edward Island to Canada's mainland. Eventually, Islanders voted in favour of a public-private partnership's solution: a 12.9-kilometre bridge spanning the Northumberland Strait. However, construction of the Confederation Bridge posed a problem. No precedent existed for ice loads that the bridge piers would encounter as they weathered the strait's winter–spring conditions.
Researchers from NRC were among the talented engineers who rose to the challenge. Conducting many studies, researchers examined how ice floes behave and used probabilistic methods to calculate potential ice loads. The project broke ground in 1993 and employed more than 5 000 Canadians. Within four years, the bridge opened to provide Canadians and tourists alike with a safe, efficient link.
The Confederation Bridge made history as the world's longest bridge over ice-covered water and its construction marked one of Canada's top engineering feats. To this day, NRC carefully monitors the structure's performance and ice loads to ensure safety, inform planning for future projects, and study long-term effects of ice on similar structures.
Tuning tiny transistors
Circumventing the limits of conventional transistor technology
NRC researchers at the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) created the world's first single molecule electrical circuit and are learning how to build the computer of the future one molecule at a time.
Transistors are part of the microelectronics that drive everything from smart phones to cars. But, with today's technology, transistors can get only so small. The next generation of electronics calls for transistors that can work at the molecular scale—a quantum leap towards faster devices that use less power and give off less heat.
In 2005, scientists at the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), an NRC partnership with both the provincial government and the University of Alberta, found a way to shrink electronic components down to the size of a single molecule. This marked the first demonstration of a single charged atom on a silicon surface regulating the conductivity of a nearby molecule—in effect, by switching it on or off. This "nano-transistor" would be hundreds of times smaller than a conventional transistor but, more importantly, it would be greener, using thousands of times less power.
Practical molecular transistors are still years away. But with the nano-transistor, scientists have crossed the threshold into a new frontier of molecular-age circuitry.
Come swell or high water
Flood prevention and mitigation
NRC can simulate the effects of multiple dam break and flooding scenarios in order to improve emergency plans and determine the best escape routes during an actual crisis.
Floods, Canada's most frequent and costly natural disasters, cause extensive losses for communities near rivers and oceans. Heavy rainfall, dam failures, storm surges, ice jams and rapid melting of snow mean that floods loom year-round. Without being able to control the weather and extreme events, government and emergency personnel must plan ahead to cope with likely scenarios.
Canadian researchers created EnSim software to model and forecast how floods and water run-off will behave. The software analyzes and simulates flooding by interacting with real-time and historical data about weather, water levels, the environment and geography. The software provides 2D and 3D visualizations of different scenarios, and quickly adjusts to new data showing where and how much flooding will occur.
More than 40 countries have seen the value of NRC's software, which has given authorities and dam owners the analysis and projections necessary to inform design decisions, improve emergency plans and forewarn at-risk residents. These simulations and expert recommendations contributed to the post-1997 Red River Floodway expansion project to divert future floods and protect Manitobans.
New realms of realism
Scanning technology brings life to Hollywood blockbusters
NRC developed 3D scanning technology that brought characters from The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings to life in Hollywood blockbusters.
Moviegoers witness the result of Canadian laser scanning that quickly captures millions of measurements for precise, realistic visuals. NRC developed the 3D scanning technology for manufacturing, and honed it for space engineering and historic artworks like the Mona Lisa. Now, that technology injects untold realism into Hollywood movies.
NRC licensed its 3D auto-asynchronous scanner and related software across varied sectors. By 1998, the licensees had revenues exceeding $18 million and 100 employees. One company, which incubated at NRC for three years, has generated 3D scans of actors such as Halle Berry, Channing Tatum and Keanu Reeves. Those 3D digital scans were sent to visual effects (VFX) companies that manipulate and animate them.
Through the technology's 3D scans of sculptures, blockbuster creatures came to life for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Fellowship of the Ring and King Kong. Both movies, plus Gravity, won Academy Awards for their visual effects, and others featuring Canada's 3D scans have earned nominations. The scanner's microscopic 3D details have even appeared in video games and a U2 music video.
Optical filter technologies
On December 1, 1989 the Bank of Canada issued its $50 banknote that featured NRC's thin films anti-counterfeiting technology, designed with security features to counter the colour photocopiers of that era.
Anyone who wears polarized sunglasses, uses high-end cameras or has tinted windows understands the influence a filter has on what one sees. Many different industries need to amplify, separate, reflect, transmit and otherwise control light. Optical filters answered those needs, but few filters were durable or performed well.
NRC began researching optical filters in 1956, and moved on to thin-film coatings, techniques to apply thin-film layers and improvements for manufacturing processes. This pioneering, patented work is foundational technology for communication networks, semiconductor and electronics manufacturing, medical and research instruments based on fluorescence, anti-counterfeiting banknotes, space programs and more.
In 1998, NRC spun out its design and manufacturing of durable, high-performing optical filters as Iridian Spectral Technologies. Ottawa-based Iridian has passed the 100-employee mark, expanded into multimillion-dollar facilities and pursued new optical applications. Most recently, Iridian created 3D glasses for Dolby® to view 3D films like Avatar, and produced laserdeflecting eyeglasses to protect pilots from being blinded by laser pointers during takeoffs and landings. Optic al filters underlie and enhance technologies that define modern life.
Stryke-ing manufacturing wins
A Canadian-built light-armoured vehicle
NRC virtual environment technologies helped the Canadian operations of General Motors Defense win a contract to build the Stryker LAV weapons system in 2003.
Fierce competition surrounds military contracts because winning bids mean economic gains. At the turn of this century, the U.S. Army requested a tactical fleet of 2 000 Stryker lightarmoured vehicles (LAVs), and manufacturers clamoured for that $6-billion contract.
To achieve the efficiencies needed to win the contract, the Canadian operations of General Motors Defense (GMD) collaborated with NRC researchers using virtual environment technologies in London, Ontario. The technologies let GMD's teams see designs and production processes in three dimensions before investing in materials and factory lines.
These technologies revolutionized how GMD designed and manufactured vehicles. Staff credited Canadian collaborators and technologies for their substantial role in speeding up the project. Their role, combined with other efforts, resulted in a 78–83 per cent reduction in total project time and achieved substantial cost savings. GMD, now part of General Dynamics Land Systems, won the coveted Stryker contract in 2003. Subsequent contracts arose with other countries, which support 3 000 jobs and benefit nearly 500 other Canadian suppliers.
Rewriting the astronomy textbook
Technique to glimpse deeper into the universe
NRC was part of a team of international astronomers involved in the Gemini Deep Deep Survey (GDDS) project that ultimately changed humanity's understanding of the early Universe.
Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT)
Astronomers devote their lives to exploring galaxies and how they are formed. Unfortunately, peering into the deep universe is a complicated venture. Distance makes signals faint and Earth's atmosphere causes considerable interference, further obscuring cosmological observations.
Members of a multi-year international astronomy project called the Gemini Deep Deep Survey (GDDS), began peering into our universe's distant past. Working at the Gemini Observatory, NRC—in partnership with the U.K. Astronomy Technology Centre and Durham University—developed a nod-and-shuffle technique for the Gemini multi-object spectrograph, an instrument designed and built by NRC for the Gemini telescopes. The technique allows the telescope to see spectra of distant objects by subtracting the effects of the background sky.
What the GDDS team found amazed them. They discovered massive, mature galaxies dating back 9 to 11 billion years. Until 2003, astronomers had believed that only newly forming galaxies existed during that epoch. GDDS raised fundamental questions about theoretical and cosmological models of the early universe, forever changing our understanding of its formation and forcing edits to astronomy textbooks.
In a flash
Ultrafast lasers deliver world's shortest light pulses
In 2001 NRC researchers, led by Paul Corkum, produced and measured what were then the world's shortest light flashes (measured in attoseconds) used to capture mysterious processes within atoms and molecules.
Better, smaller, faster; this is the eternal race. But, technology limits can create roadblocks in that race's path. For example, since lasers were discovered in 1960, scientists have continually searched for ways to shorten laser pulses. Researchers believe shorter laser pulses would permit superior control over matter, but the race plateaued at six femtoseconds, or six quadrillionths of a second.
A breakthrough came in 2001 when NRC's Paul Corkum and colleagues in Austria proved sub-femtosecond laser pulses were possible. They produced and measured what were then the world's shortest light flashes, measured in attoseconds. For perspective, one attosecond is to one second as one second is to the age of the universe. This advance lets researchers capture and measure speedy and mysterious processes within atoms, molecules and solids.
Now, attosecond technology is used to record and control energy and matter, and to photograph electrons and chemical reactions—all previously deemed impossible. NRC furthers its pioneering attosecond work through collaborations with the University of Ottawa, including the Joint Attosecond Science Laboratory (JASLab), which focuses on ultra-fast photonics.
Designing for less pain, more gains
Innovations to design offices for comfort
NRC scientists have offered solutions to the corporate world for building better cubicles that improve comfort, maximize employee well-being and enhance productivity.
Jokes and comic strips abound about cubicle life. However, working in open offices is no laughing matter for the more than 40 million North Americans whose senses are bombarded while at work in cubicles.
In response, Canadian researchers equipped a specialized chair with environmental sensors to measure noise, lighting, air quality, temperature, humidity and ventilation. By setting up the chair in hundreds of cubicles across North America, researchers gathered valuable data about office environments. Employees in those offices also completed questionnaires to determine the issues that most affected their workspace satisfaction.
Based on this research, NRC scientists have offered ways for the corporate world to build better cubicles—ones that improve comfort, maximize employee well-being and possibly even enhance productivity. Thanks to this Canadian research, and subsequent software tools, planners, architects and interior designers can now assess how to improve the broader office environment. They factor in lighting, layout and acoustics when designing options for open offices.
Cleaning the air with emission control technology
NRC improved the accuracy of measuring exhaust pollution by developing a technology to measure particulate emissions using a laser pulse.
Most of Canada's 23 million vehicles release particulate pollution like soot particles containing black carbon. Admittedly, diesel exhaust is the primary culprit, but incomplete combustion means even high-efficiency cars running on other fuels, including biofuel, increase soot levels too. It matters because soot harms human health, increases smog and affects weather.
Emission-control filters attempt to trap and measure soot, but ultrafine particles escape. However, soot cannot dodge measurement by NRC's laser-induced incandescence (LII) technology. First, LII illuminates soot with a laser pulse. Next, based on light intensity, LII's sensor calculates the presence, precise size, concentration and temperature of particles.
NRC licensed LII200 and LII300 to a Californian company. Using the company's commercial version, the State of California tested trucks for exact soot levels emitted while driving. The goal was to reduce premature deaths and environmental damage. In Canada, LII measures particulate emissions from experimental vehicles powered by new engine designs and various fuels. With that data, regulators and manufacturers assess trade-offs between improved fuel efﬁciency and particulate pollution. LII instruments are under consideration for certification of civil aviation's engine emissions.
Improved night-vision systems for pilots
NRC engineered unique improvements to night vision goggles for the Canadian Forces and rescue pilots.
Night-time emergency search-and-rescue flights are dangerous missions. Canada's vast mountain terrains, rainforests, tundra and three coastlines increase the complexity. Add in some of the planet's worst climate conditions. Is it any wonder paramedics and pilots die in crashes after dark?
Long used by the military, night-vision technology enables safer, speedier emergency flights in darkness. NRC aerospace researchers have engineered unique improvements to night-vision goggles for the Canadian Forces, and now too for rescue pilots to fly safely between mountains, through valleys and across remote areas. NRC works alongside Transport Canada to develop regulations and certify pilots learning to "see" in the dark. Night vision requires a complex combination of neuroscience, psychology and engineering so that pilots can identify and interpret light sources and landmarks in the dark. Air ambulance pilots were among the first to routinely employ night-vision goggles in Canada.
Aerospace experts expect to see night-vision technologies become standard equipment in the near future in nearly all cockpits—much like global positioning systems (GPS) are the norm today.
None the worse for wear
A holistic approach to aircraft inspections
NRC developed a ground-based integrated diagnostic system (IDS) to monitor the health of aircraft in flight that receives data in real time and makes recommendations for routine maintenance and unforeseen problems.
Many factors undermine aircraft bodies and parts. If unidentified, wear-and-tear issues could worsen and affect airworthiness or safety, especially with aircraft flying beyond intended lifespans. Meanwhile, operators prematurely replace sound parts based on maintenance schedules set when aircraft construction involved metal, not today's less-corrosive materials.
Cost-conscious operators must anticipate and assess risks, yet avoid unnecessary replacements and labour costs. NRC engineers saw potential in Diffracto Limited's patented D-SightTM technique for inspecting automobiles by bouncing and reflecting light. In adapting D-Sight to sweep an aircraft's vast surfaces, they identified minute imperfections requiring closer inspection for corrosion, impact strikes and aging defects. Thousands of aircraft inspections, extensive data and a specimen library convinced Canadian researchers of relationships between minor surface anomalies and underlying problems or acceptable wear.
Canada's inspection technique and engineering expertise save international military and civilian sectors money and time, while managing risk. Plus, Canadian know-how contributed to the Holistic Structural Integrity Process (HOLSIP), which predicts when repairs will be required and how to sustain structures, and influences aerospace, bridge design and safety, and other construction engineering.
Oh, mega growth
Finessing fish oil for health benefits
NRC helped Ocean Nutrition Canada, a company headquartered in Nova Scotia, to perfect refinement technologies for omega-3 for the benefit of human health.
Longer life expectancies have people searching for ways to ward off disease and live out their latter years in good health. Omega-3 fatty acids, derived from fish oil, offer nutritional gains, cholesterol improvements and anti-inflammatory benefits. Studies also show potential contributions to heart and brain health. Is it any wonder omega-3s appear in dietary supplements and everything from yogurt to juice?
However, many consumers, regulators and manufacturers found insufficient quality ingredients in commercial omega-3 preparations as a hindrance. So, Ocean Nutrition Canada (ONC) invested heavily in research. After dozens of patents, and collaborations with NRC, POS Bio-Sciences, and Dalhousie and Memorial universities, ONC perfected its refinement and microencapsulation technologies for omega-3 oils and powders. These technologies remove contaminants, increase concentrations, curb the fishy smell and taste, and protect omega-3 benefits, even at baking temperatures.
ONC was rewarded with the largest omega-3 ingredient market share globally. The company grew from four to more than 400 employees. Its multimillion-dollar revenues consistently topped 20 percent year-over-year growth, attracting a $540-million acquisition from Royal DSM, which subsequently invested in upgrades to ONC's Nova Scotia facilities.
Be gone, twinkle of starlight
First-ever images captured of planets
An international team of astronomers, led by NRC's Christian Marois, reached a milestone in the search for other worlds when they captured the first-ever images of planets circling a star other than the Sun.
circling a star other than the Sun On starry evenings, many people gaze at twinkling starlight. But to astronomers, that twinkling represents one thing: distortion. Temperature variations in the atmosphere cause starlight to bend, altering our view of the stars and other objects in space.
Adaptive optics measure and compensate for the distortions in light waves. NRC researchers developed one of the world's most powerful adaptive-optics systems, known as Altair. Altair and recent advances in image-processing technology led an international team of astronomers to reach a milestone in the search for other worlds. In 2008, they captured the first-ever images of planets circling a star other than the Sun. Led by NRC astronomer Christian Marois, the team identified three exoplanets more massive than Jupiter. The exoplanets orbit a star known as HR 8799, which is faintly visible to the naked eye at approximately 130 light years from Earth.
Two years later, the team discovered a fourth planet in the same system. With these images, astronomers can directly examine the atmospheric properties of four giant exoplanets, marking a crucial step toward finding and studying Earth-like planets.
Simulation-based brain surgery
In August 2009, a neurosurgeon in Halifax made medical history by becoming the first to successfully remove a patient's brain tumour with the assistance of a virtual-reality neurosurgical simulator developed by NRC.
As medical procedures go, brain surgery is risky. Complications can happen. When surgeons remove brain tumours or correct other conditions, the surrounding tissue cannot be damaged without affecting patients' coordination, memory, speech and more. Diagnostic imaging informs initial decisions, but patients' tumours vary, leaving surgeons to finalize case-specific approaches during each operation.
NRC led a cross-country collaboration to develop neurosurgerysimulator technology for surgeons to rehearse appropriate procedures and hone their approaches before performing them live. The simulator pairs a virtual-reality machine with high-resolution haptics, essentially touch-sensitive hardware. Its software makes the virtual tissue behave just as it would in actual surgery. As surgeons practice incisions, virtual channels pool with blood precisely the way they would during live surgery, because the simulated blood vessels are positioned based on individual patients' scans.
In 2009, a Halifax-based neurosurgeon made medical history, becoming the first to successfully remove a brain tumour following rehearsals using a patient-personalized simulation. This landmark technology improves health outcomes for patients and places Canada at the forefront of simulation research and development.