Toward a sustainable world
Today, Canada faces an unprecedented period of global transformation, bringing about economic, environmental and social changes that will radically reshape our communities, our means of transportation and our lifestyles. Climate change, sustainable development in the North and an aging population are just some of Canada's latest challenges. In 2010, NRC began adopting processes to spur game-changing technologies and to support innovations that will address these challenges and those of the future.
When failure is not an option
Aircraft de-icing and technologies to evaluate safety systems
NRC designed and maintains specialized systems that control a spray to test engine icing by simulating operating and environmental conditions at GLACIER, the Global Aerospace Centre for Icing and Environmental Research.
Work to keep plane skis and propellers ice-free began at NRC in 1939. By the 1940s, NRC's responsibilities expanded to include icing detection, mitigation and even engine-icing certification. Flash forward to modern-day aircraft. Gas turbine engines can suck in minute ice crystals, which accumulate or break away causing power loss, sensor problems, expensive damages and sometimes safety issues. Engine manufacturers and regulators need more data about engine icing, strategies and technologies that minimize icing's effects, and engine tests and certifications for how engines cope with icing.
So, Rolls-Royce Canada and Pratt & Whitney established the Global Aerospace Centre for Icing and Environmental Research (GLACIER), an outdoor facility in Thompson, Manitoba's sub-arctic environment. As a partner, NRC designed and maintains specialized systems that control a spray to test engine icing by simulating operating and environmental conditions.
Since GLACIER opened in 2010, MDS AeroTest has operated the facility to support engine-icing certification of all aviation engines, up to the industry's largest. Today, researchers can also assess what happens when gas turbines ingest ice crystals, and improve related sensors.
Alternative jet fuel takes flight
Biofuel advances propel a greener aviation industry
In 2012, NRC achieved a major milestone for the aviation industry when it flew the first civil jet powered by 100 percent unblended biofuel.
On average, 100 000 flights take off daily worldwide, despite airborne emissions being increasingly blamed for contributing to climate change. With such high demand for air travel, it is critical to explore sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel to reduce emissions without sacrificing efficiency.
In 2012, NRC achieved a major milestone for the aviation industry; it flew the first civil jet powered by 100 per cent unblended biofuel. The flight's biofuel, converted by Applied Research Associates and Chevron Lummus Global, was grown from an industrial oilseed crop developed by Agrisoma Biosciences Inc., a Saskatoon-based company. NRC's Falcon 20 jet proved that the new biofuel offers a cleaner, efficient and viable alternative for aircraft fuel.
That historic flight led to a collaborative agreement between NRC and NASA to study the atmospheric effects of emissions from jet engines burning alternative fuels. This important research is leading the way for the qualification and acceptance of biofuels in civil aviation and providing lift-off to greener fuels that benefit the global aerospace industry while preserving the environment.
The need for speed
Giving athletes an edge on their path to the podium
NRC wind tunnels have been used to assess the aerodynamics of sports equipment and the posture of Canadian athletes helping them go for gold at the Olympics.
Society encourages children to view sports as fun rather than competitive—until the Winter Games roll around, when Canadians want to outpace everyone. When facing the best of the best internationally, Team Canada welcomes any competitive advantage.
As part of the "Own the Podium" program leading up to Vancouver 2010, athletes turned to engineering prowess to shave seconds to milliseconds off their finish times. Canadians representing 11 sports—ranging from skeleton and snowboarding to speed skating and skiing—spent time in NRC's wind tunnels. There, engineers focused on performance improvements related to snow and ice friction, aerodynamics and human kinetics. In that safe environment, technology tested how slight tweaks to body stance or sporting equipment would enhance performance.
Did engineering make a difference? The podium sparkled with gold. In Vancouver, not only did Canada earn its best gold-medal standings for both the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, and mark an all-time-high medal count, but our nation also broke the record for most Olympic golds for any single country in the history of the Winter Games. Of course the athletes deserve some credit, too.
Super tubes: the strong-and-petite type
NRC led the way in nanotube production — first with carbon and now with boron nitride, which are ultra-strong, nearly invincible and ready to revolutionize the super-materials industry.
Tiny boron nitride nanotubes (BNNTs) are ultra-strong, light, nearly invincible and ready to revolutionize the super-materials industry. Just how tiny is a nano? Human DNA is 2.5 nanometres in diameter. With 100 times the strength of steel, but less than one-sixth the weight, these nanotubes can stand up to 2 000 degrees Celsius. They would not even melt under molten lava. However, these same superpowers make commercial production of BNNTs difficult.
In 2014, NRC devised a process to quickly produce pure BNNTs. Synthesizing material with a super high-heat resistance needed a unique high-temperature vaporization process. This kind of materials processing became an NRC specialty during earlier work on carbon nanotubes, a super-strength BNNT cousin with similar, yet limited traits.
Imagine transparent military armour that can withstand bomb blasts or buildings that are immune to fire. BNNT coatings could protect against damaging ultraviolet light and serve as linings to shield airplane cockpits and space vehicles from radiation. NRC has transferred the technology to Canadian industry to give this country a head start in manufacturing and developing BNNTs.
A weighty matter
Canada and the kilogram
NRC recently accomplished one of the most complicated experiments on the planet, measuring the Planck constant using a watt balance and achieved results critical to the redefinition of the official kilogram.
The kilogram is one of seven base units of measure in the International System of Units (SI). Many modern measurements such as mass, electricity, force and light rely on the kilogram. Yet, the kilogram is defined by a physical standard—a platinumiridium cylinder manufactured in 1879. Scientists are increasingly concerned about that cylinder's longer-term accessibility and stability, because its mass is not easily reproducible and gradually changes with time.
Fortunately, an NRC breakthrough succeeded in linking the kilogram and the Planck constant—with uncertainty of fewer than 20 parts per billion—using a highly sensitive watt balance that measures the electrical force needed to counterbalance a kilogram. That experiment, widely acknowledged as one of the five hardest known to science, had high-calibre teams globally pursuing similar results for more than 30 years.
NRC's watt balance results pave the way for the kilogram's redefinition in 2018. From conducting high-precision experiments to optimizing computers and fiber-optic networks, scientists worldwide will benefit from an SI based on fundamental constants that remain the same today, tomorrow and next century.
Game of drones
Giving helicopters autonomous control
NRC's development of auto-pilot computer models in VR simulations is leading to real-world autonomous flight technologies for UAVs and helicopters in remote regions of Canada.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) have become commonplace. However, their inability to control their own operations and communicate amongst themselves hampers advancements. If achieved, such control would revolutionize Canada's search-and-rescue activities, contribute to defence missions and conduct flights in hazardous, remote areas.
To that end, Defence Research and Development Canada linked its UAV expertise with NRC's strengths in aerospace engineering and mathematical modelling. First, they co-developed a computer model to allow UAVs to control themselves in virtual simulations. Then, Meggitt Training Systems Canada performed test flights and developed ways to safely switch between autopilot and remote-operation modes. Finally, NRC engineers outfitted a single-occupant helicopter with sensors and instrumentation to collect data on aircraft movement. A prototype UAV tested the instrumentation and transferred navigation control back to the helicopter.
The Canadian computer-controlled flight system lets the helicopter safely take off on its own, perform remote-controlled manoeuvres and return to an automated state to self-land. The helicopter recently completed autonomous flights in the Arctic, thereby confirming such flights are viable and opening the skies to additional possibilities.
Brains without borders
Sneaking therapeutic antibodies into the brain
NRC engineered molecules that deliver disease-fighting antibodies past the brain barrier.
Blood vessels form a protective layer called the blood-brain barrier, which separates the human brain from the body's overall bloodstream. That barrier guards the brain primarily by letting essential nutrients through, while blocking out other substances like toxins, hormones and most medications. This barrier has also obstructed research efforts about Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases.
To break through that barrier, NRC has been developing carrier molecules that let disease-fighting molecules penetrate the brain. The team's series of tiny antibodies infiltrate the barrier by exploiting the way that nutrients enter the brain. Acting as a Trojan horse, the therapeutic antibodies hitch a ride on molecules, tricking the barrier into allowing their entry.
Engineering and testing led Biogen Canada to successfully couple NRC's carrier molecules with the company's antibodies. During non-invasive animal trials, these carrier-antibody molecules delivered potent therapeutics for brain diseases. Although human clinical trials take years, ongoing NRC research is well-positioned to boost the flow of new medicines to clinical trials, thus speeding up how patients get effective treatments for brain diseases.
Fishing in troubled waters
Sailing through nature's obstacle course
NRC's numerical modelling techniques informed engineering decisions on mitigating navigation risks for fishermen at Shippagan Gully.
High winds, rough waters, tidal currents and an ever-narrowing entrance plague Shippagan Gully, the most direct route for fish harvesters sailing between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Chaleur Bay, New Brunswick. To alleviate risks, piers or jetties extended out from the Gully's entrance. However, the jetties deteriorated, forcing vessels to take six-hour detours before returning to commercial harbours. Those detours affected the local fishing community's economy and productivity.
Federal departments sought advice from coastal engineers and researchers at NRC and the University of Ottawa. Together, they applied numerical modelling to test the effectiveness of multiple potential solutions. These models informed the decision to increase the channel's depth and width as well as construct a 150-metre outer jetty to reduce wave action and sediment accumulation.
Those Shippagan Gully interventions are on track to present cost savings and safer navigation. Increases in fishing traffic and tourism are expected to net greater profits for local industry, which currently yields more than 15 000 tonnes of seafood and generates $30–$50 million in annual revenue.
Ping. Ping. Time for retrofitting.
New autopilot technology for submarines
NRC helped the Department of National Defence to modernize and re-design auto-pilot technology for Canada's submarine fleet.
To stay in operation, aging submarines must be equipped with updated systems. Four submarines that Canada purchased in 1998 needed modernization and retrofits. Department of National Defence (DND) engineers prioritized the upgrades, including adding a new autopilot system to automatically compensate for whatever affects submarine navigation underwater and at the surface.
DND turned to partners, including NRC, supplier L-3 MAPPS and Defence Research and Development Canada to design, build and test the new-from-scratch autopilot system. For phase one, the collaborators designed the system's specifications, created a numerical modelling tool and evaluated prototype designs. Phase two involved building a 1/15-scale model submarine and submerging it in NRC's immense, 200-metre marine tank in Newfoundland. There, the teams collected full-scale baseline data on the existing autopilot systems in order to build the new software.
NRC's facilities and expertise in control technologies permitted DND to auto-manoeuver the model, witness the trial software in action and assess how the system worked. This gave DND confidence to move to production and conduct advanced analysis before the Canadian-made system takes to open waters.
Sweet taste of success
Golden future for PEI-based honey products
NRC helped PEI-based entrepreneur, Island Abbey Foods, turn their honey manufacturing process into solid gold.
Island Abbey Foods
A sticky situation led John Rowe, CEO of Island Abbey Foods, to come up with the inspiration for a new food product. While hiking in British Columbia, a jar of honey broke in his backpack. Unable to find all-natural solid honey for future hikes, the Prince Edward Island-based entrepreneur committed to making the product himself.
Rowe spent the next decade developing the world's first solid cube of pure, 100 per cent honey, which retains the pleasing taste of raw honey. IRAP supported his efforts. However, to take his products to market, formulation demanded good manufacturing principles that conform to guidelines required by Canadian and international health authorities. NRC tests helped the company validate claims that the solidification process did not refine the honey, and helped Rowe on an ongoing basis to fine-tune scientific methods supporting quality assurance, analysis and manufacturing.
With Rowe's award-winning formula for solid honey, the company has expanded worldwide from food to natural health products, including honey vitamins and therapeutic lozenges. Next up, Rowe is partnering to have dried honey help deliver pharmaceutical medications.
Bridges that span a lifetime
New high-performing concrete
Advancements in a concrete formulation made by the NRC was recently used on the Canal Bridge in Cornwall, Ontario and is expected to last for about 100 years.
Bridges are continuously battered. Harsh weather and acid rain are accompanied by heavy traffic and road salt—all of which take a hefty toll. Nearly all of Canada's 80 000 bridges require significant maintenance to keep them safe and efficient for drivers.
Cornwall, Ontario's Canal Bridge, owned by the Federal Bridge Corporation Limited, faces a more sustainable and economical future. Part of the Seaway International Bridge system, the cross-border bridge is made from a new class of concrete developed by NRC, with the help of Federal Bridge Corporation and other partners. NRC's innovative formulation makes this high-performing concrete retain moisture better. The concrete is expected to last up to four times longer than traditional concrete—so possibly 100 years before requiring major repairs. Plus, overall costs will be significantly lower than other high-performance concrete formulations.
Since its installation, the Canal Bridge's concrete shows encouraging results. Shrinkage, cracks and corrosion are absent. The concrete's durability, strength and safety present a practical solution to improve critical infrastructure for transportation, within Canada and elsewhere.
Shining new light on tissue health
With technology licensed from NRC, Kent Imaging's "Tissue Viability System" uses near-infrared light to quickly gauge wound health without requiring any invasive procedures or touching the affected tissue.
While most minor skin wounds heal themselves, more serious injuries require strong blood-oxygen levels to reach the wound's interior. In the past, without proper diagnostic tools, healthcare professionals were left to treat major wounds based solely on visual assessments of the skin's surface.
Using NRC technology originally designed to evaluate burns, Calgary-based Kent Imaging reimagined the technology's use for wound care of all kinds. The company's smart-imaging tissue viability system (TVS) applies near-infrared light to quickly gauge wound health, without requiring invasive procedures—or even touching the affected tissue. Operating much like a digital camera, TVS quickly snaps a series of photos using light flashes of different wavelengths. The resulting combination of images displays blood and oxygenated blood, which the naked eye cannot detect.
Since 2012, TVS has empowered clinicians and healthcare practitioners around the world to effectively diagnose wound health within a few seconds. For years, this technology has helped save lives. It improves quality of life and looks deeper into the science of wound and tissue health.
Innovation boosts optical transmission and enhances manufacturing
NRC helped Quebec's TeraXion Inc. to streamline its production process in order to deliver optimal speed and performance for its data-transmission modulators.
As the world continues to adopt the Internet as the primary vehicle for information, telecommunication manufacturers face increasing demands to deliver faster, more reliable systems for connections. The difficulty lies in consistently creating devices that offer optimal performance and energy efficiency at the lowest cost per gigabit.
Quebec's TeraXion Inc. is meeting this challenge head on with its modulator products. Delivered in 2014, the company's highspeed optical modulators use an indium phosphide (InP) system for significantly improved transmission speeds of 100 gigabits per second and faster. Together with NRC, the company has developed a streamlined production process that allows TeraXion to deliver superior-performing devices at a very high yield.
That speed and performance has attracted global attention—so much so that multinational Ciena Corp. paid $47 million to acquire the TeraXion's InP technology and intellectual property. The technology lets companies and consumers access a more cost-effective platform that would not be possible using conventional materials. Ongoing collaboration between NRC and TeraXion lights the way for innovative fiber-optic communications solutions—now and into the future.
Nature to the rescue
Oil bioremediation in the Arctic
Over the years NRC has developed natural bioremediation techniques that can mitigate environmental contamination in harsh Canadian environments.
Fuel spills in Canada's North are particularly damaging, expensive and tough to repair. A 22 000-litre diesel-fuel leak at Canadian Forces Station Alert left the world's northernmost permanently inhabited settlement with concentration levels of diesel in soil at 800 per cent higher than federal guidelines. Arctic temperatures, harsh work environments and limited resources restricted the clean-up options available for the 2006 spill.
In facing this challenge, National Defence sought NRC ingenuity. Researchers employed natural bioremediation techniques that used on-hand resources and minimized environmental disruption. The team mixed nutrients and oxygen into the soil, making microorganisms increase their consumption of petroleum hydrocarbons and gradually either neutralize contamination or make it less toxic.
Within six years, concentration levels successfully returned to an acceptable average of fewer than 260 parts per million, saving taxpayers millions and protecting nature. More recently, NRC researchers and their Fisheries and Oceans Canada partners observed microorganisms that use petroleum compounds as a food source even in cold water, showing it is possible for oil to naturally degrade in the high Arctic's marine environment.
Waste not, want not
Technology clears the air with renewable biogas
Quadrogen Power Systems overcame start-up hurdles and technical challenges through IRAP support and NRC's technical expertise.
Biogas releases into our atmosphere when biological matter—like that found in wastewater, landfills and agricultural waste—breaks down. However, if captured and cleaned, biogas can deliver renewable power and heat. While technology to clean biogas has existed for years, older systems remove only a fraction of the harmful impurities and pollutants, and the remnants damage the systems and often cause them to fail.
An entrepreneurial company needed a cleaner solution. Quadrogen Power Systems connected with NRC to overcome start-up hurdles and tackle technical challenges. After IRAP provided initial business support, NRC helped Quadrogen with engineering skills, mechanical design and testing procedures. The company has since developed a modular, efficient and reliable four-step process that removes virtually all contaminants from biogas.
This Canadian innovation lets companies clean biogas, while simultaneously producing cost-saving electricity, heat, hydrogen and food-grade carbon dioxide for use in greenhouses. Quadrogen has delivered solutions to major clients from British Columbia to California, including a wastewater facility that has operated for more than three years with Quadrogen's clean system, showing no signs of damage.
Cushioning a bumpy ride
A smoother flight for aerospace industry
Helicopter seat cushions were developed by NRC to dissipate the jarring effects of vibration on pilots' health.
When they routinely clock in long flight times, pilots and aircrew experience more than discomfort from relentless vibrations. This vibrational energy, typically transmitted through aircraft seats, also affects comfort, safety and health, causing problems like chronic back and neck pain. The Department of National Defence enlisted NRC's assistance to minimize negative effects.
Along with defence engineers, NRC experts tested fabric performance, stiffness and flammability. Next, they explored new configurations for an ideal option to alleviate whole-body vibrations and tested options with a specialized mechanical chair that shakes to mimic in-flight movement. The researchers developed a high-quality and cost-effective solution—a seat cushion integrating traditional foam with a novel energy-absorbing material. Unique patterns of hexagonal cells interconnect with a system of air vents to disperse the energy.
NRC's Bell-412 helicopter provided a controlled environment for in-flight tests that confirmed the cushion's ability to successfully dissipate vibrational energy. Now, a fleet of Canadian Armed Forces helicopters is set to adopt the design. The technology shows promise for civilian use too and has been licensed out for commercial helicopters.
Flax forward to future transport
Lighter ground-transportation parts made from flax biocomposites
NRC is integrating flax-based biocomposites to produce parts for the transportation industry.
After flax seeds are collected, the plant's leftover, straw-like stalks typically become agricultural waste. Yet, those stalks' strong fibres can replace glass fibres or plastic in ground-transportation parts. Manufacturers seek well-priced, eco-friendly parts that weigh less, without compromising safety, consistent quality and strength.
To meet these requirements, NRC experts researched ways to extract, treat and adapt flax fibres for use as biocomposites. Laboratory tests examined flax's flammability, toxicity and humidity resistance. Through collaborations, NRC researchers ensured that their solutions were suited to integrating flax fibres into manufacturing settings, based on requirements for production parts.
Now, Canadian industry partners, including Bombardier, are working closely with NRC to create a supply chain that will provide a sustainable supply of biocomposites offering consistent quality, at competitive prices, in pursuit of a $500-billion global market. Lighter parts made from flax biocomposites would mean faster travel and allow operators to conserve fuel, save costs, reduce levels of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and maybe even absorb sound.
Skirting space snags
New Horizons reaches Pluto intact
NRC researchers worked with NASA to collect navigation data from the spacecraft New Horizons so that collisions could be avoided on its journey to Pluto and beyond.
NASA's fastest-ever unmanned spacecraft New Horizons faced promise and jeopardy on its journey to Pluto. Throughout its 5 billion kilometre approach to Pluto, New Horizons risked colliding with space hazards—previously unseen rings, moons, rocky dust and icy debris—especially in the region beyond Neptune.
To prevent collisions, a global team that included NRC researchers collaborated to collect vital astronomical data for the spacecraft's navigation system. New Horizons relied on a highly precise position-reference system provided by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and its MegaPrime camera. MegaPrime can be calibrated more accurately than any other wide-field imaging camera, and incorporates methods and a system developed at NRC.
The data and systems helped guide New Horizons on its nine-year obstacle course to Pluto. The July 14, 2015, flyby took planetary exploration to the edge of our solar system. It marked humanity's first close encounter with Pluto as the spacecraft collected data and recorded up-close photos. New Horizons has fuel for one more flyby in the outer solar system, expected in 2018–2019.