New Beginnings: fibre optics sensing technology has potential to make Canadian railways safer

- Ottawa, Ontario

Headshot of Merrina, smiling.

Merrina Zhang's project to monitor rail stress to ensure train tracks are safer for Canadians has come a long way. A number of years ago, the New Beginnings Initiative allowed the senior research engineer to take her ideas to the next level and kick-started her career at the NRC. Today, Merrina continues to develop technological tools to better forecast the impact of stress on railway tracks in Canada.

Exploring new research directions for Canadian railways

Merrina Zhang is a senior research engineer at the Automotive and Surface Transportation Research Centre. She joined the NRC in 2017 to do research on railway tracks, bringing with her decades of rail research experience. Prior to her arrival, the NRC had been mostly studying railway systems from the wheels up and lacked data on the system as a whole. She initially looked into track failures, caused in part by Canada's varying geology and temperatures and by the blend of old and new tracks welded together. This research led her to apply to the first round of New Beginnings in 2018 to monitor the buildup of stress in railway tracks using Brillouin optical time-domain analysis (BOTDA), a fibre optic sensing technology. She found partners with similar interests at the University of Ottawa, Queen's University and VIA Rail and set out to learn how to best understand stress conditions in the field. Some of the areas Merrina's research examined:

 Two people outside the NRC Lester Road facility, wearing coats and safety vests stand behind a van parked on the grass next to a locomotive on rail tracks
  • which types of sensors can survive in extreme heat and cold
  • how to protect equipment from wild animals
  • what insulation techniques are the most effective
  • what kind of data can be gathered with the chosen instruments
  • what calibration is needed to make sense of the data

The field campaign was completed in the summer of 2020.

Building on trailblazing ideas

A close-up side view of the undercarriage of a locomotive car on a track shows the wheel hub and rim.

Merrina brought unique expertise that complemented others on her team and successfully built support to start her research. The New Beginnings Initiative provided her with the perfect opportunity to further develop her ideas. "I knew I had solid, well-articulated ideas and that I had nothing to lose." The Initiative gave her the confidence she needed to move forward and make a name for herself within the NRC. "That is basically how I kick-started my career at the NRC," she adds.

For Merrina, the New Beginnings Initiative was an equalizer of sorts, a platform where her ideas would be at the forefront regardless of her being new to the NRC and relatively unknown in the organization. "It's a fair and transparent process. It gives researchers the chance to see how our ideas actually stack up against research in other areas, especially against research heavyweights such as medical devices and astrophysics."

Since its launch, the project has allowed Merrina to explore new pathways in railway track research and to further her career in the field. But what she is most proud of is the opportunity to teach students in multidisciplinary fields. "Some of the best things we've done with the New Beginnings Initiative is train young and brilliant minds for the future."

Moving forward

During the first part of the project, Merrina and her team gathered data manually. For the next phase of the project, she wanted to use the latest AI analytics methods. This would not only automate the sensors' installation, but also gather enough data to further understand field conditions.

A close-up side view of a railway track shows corrosion of the metal and a white line running along the track – that is the fibre optic sensor.

Merrina then applied to the Artificial Intelligence for Logistics Cluster Support program. Her project was selected and it started in April 2020. The funding allowed her to work with Queen's University's Ingenuity Labs to develop a small robot that can lay fibre optic sensors along the track, which will gather higher quality field data and contribute to building a digital railway system twin to better forecast the impact of stress under hot weather conditions. VIA Rail Canada also offered its Ottawa station to test a curved track and its Bellamy's site to test a straight track.

This project was completed in April 2024, and Merrina will now take some time to decide what will come next. "The next steps will need more field deployments across Canada," she explains, "which will take time to put in place. The New Beginnings project provided us with the knowledge, experience and confidence to move forward. And that is exactly the purpose of the New Beginnings Initiative—to support early stage, foundational, revolutionary-type ideas."

Collaborative R&D initiatives like the Ideation Fund and Cluster Support programs help bring together the NRC's national network of researchers and facilities with collaborators from industry, academia and government. These programs support collaborative research on game-changing scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs to advance specific objectives in a variety of scientific disciplines. Through the Collaborative, Science, Technology and Innovation program, the NRC provides grant and contribution funding to collaborators with complementary expertise.

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