Science Rules

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Howe Does LNG Sound?

October 15th, 2015 by toren

As one of nineteen proposed Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) export locations along the coast of British Columbia, the Woodfibre LNG project in Howe Sound, just South of Squamish has rallied many detractors. Scientists, residents and First Nations have all voiced their opposition to the project, citing concerns over everything from the dangers of natural gas explosions, falling world prices, and impacts on the environment (Yadullah, 2015).

While the potential for disaster from an LNG explosion and the “not in my backyard” response to freighter traffic from waterfront home owners in Howe Sound have been the most vocal oppositions, it is the direct and indirect environmental impacts of the project that are most worrisome.

Howe Sound. http://futureofhowesound.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Long-Har-300×192.jpg

The Woodfibre project would require approximately 17,000 cubic tonnes of seawater per hour in order to cool the natural gas (methane) to -162C for liquefied transport (Finn, 2014). The water would be chlorinated and returned to the ocean 10C warmer; a process that has been banned in California and Europe (Finn, 2014) due to environmental concerns. Over the course of a twenty five year contract, the amount of chlorine emitted into Howe Sound, not to mention other fuels, oils and chemicals simply from day-to-day operations would be immense.

While opposition is mostly regarding the Woodfibre site itself, the larger issue would seem to be just where the natural gas will come from in the first place. The project, if given approval, has a 25 year export license, with British Columbia obligated to supply 2.1 million tonnes of LNG every year (Woodfibre). If the Woodfibre, and just four of the other nineteen proposed LNG facilities were built, British Columbia would need to produce four to five times the amount of natural gas as we do today (McElroy, 2015). Currently, this natural gas is produced by means of hydraulic fracturing, which is fraught with its own environmental concerns over the disclosure of chemicals used in the fracturing process and links to fracturing-induced earthquakes; the most recent of which, a 4.6 magnitude quake on August 22 occurred in Fort St. John (Trumpener, 2015).

Hydraulic fracturing tower in BC. http://i.cbc.ca/1.2007110.1384371742!/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_620/hi-fracking-5907990.jpg

Entering into long-term LNG export contracts would put tremendous pressure on the natural gas industry to expand production through hydraulic fracturing, which as of yet has no industry-wide regulatory assessment and framework (BC Oil and Gas).

Howe Sound was once the most polluted waterway in North America due to the Brittania Copper Mine, and after nearly a century, herring, salmon Orca and Humpback whales and Pacific White-Sided dolphins are finally returning. It seems counter-intuitive to begin systematically heating and polluting these waters so soon after they have recovered. With eighteen other LNG facilities proposed, and a worldwide decrease in demand for natural gas (Yadullah, 2015), is the Woodibre project and its associated risks necessary?


BC Oil and Gas Commission. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.bcogc.ca/search/site/fracking

Finn, E. (2014). Woodfibre LNG: why we need to be oncerned. Live presentation.

McElroy, J. (2015). New Report Claims BC has Much Less Natural Gas. Global News.http://globalnews.ca/news/2018762/new-report-claims-b-c-has-much-less-natural-gas-than-government-claims/

Trumpener, J. (2015). Fracking Halted Temporarily after 4.6 Magnitude Earthquake. Huffington Post.

Woodfibre LNG: The Project. Retrieved from http://www.woodfibrelng.ca/the-project/about-the-project/

Yadullah, H. (2015). Woodfibre LNG Opposition Heats Up. Financial Post. http://business.financialpost.com/news/energy/woodfibre-lng-project-opposition-heats-up-as-fortisbc-inc-challenges-squamish-permit-denial


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April 17 Vancouver Oil Spill

May 4th, 2015 by toren

The oil spill in Vancouver harbour two weeks ago on April 17 was an eye opener for many of us. While there were bureaucratic issues that delayed the cleanup of this latest spill, once notified, cleanup crews were quite efficient and the overall management was, I believe, well handled. However, it was a rude awakening to the potential dangers of transporting oil and gas through sensitive waters.

Working in the marine industry, I have witnessed small-scale fuel and oil spills and can attest to how terrifying they appear to be. One litre of oil can cover up to one kilometer of the ocean’s surface, making even a small accident look like a catastrophe. While diesel and petrol spills usually evaporate relatively quickly, oil, and especially heavy crude like was pumped out into vancouver harbour, is far more difficult to contain and clean. Even the most well-maintained vessels leak fuel, oil, coolant and a host of other hazardous materials into the ocean. The same is true for pipelines and natural gas installations. It is an unfortunate fact of these heavy industries on which we rely for energy and global trade.

With three proposed oil and gas projects slated for the BC coast, this incident serves as a reminder of the potential for disaster. For me, the proposed LNG plant and export station at the defunct Woodfibre pulp and paper mill in Howe Sound is a perfect example of the type of project that should be waving red flags for the people of Vancouver after this latest oil spill. The area surrounding the Woodfibre mill at the mouth of the Squamish River, was once one of the ten most polluted places on the planet. Pulp mill effluent and tailings from the adjacent Britannia copper mine were dumped into the ocean at a volume of millions of gallons each day. Only now, nearly 60 years after these mills and mines were shut down, has any sort of marine life returned to the area. The proposed LNG plant, among other issues, would pump 3.4 million litres of sea water into its reactors for cooling, returning it to the ocean ten degrees warmer and chlorinated. Each day. The impact would be tremendous, and that is simply for the normal functioning of the plant, without any incidents.

Even if there were no incidents and the ecosystem was resilient enough to withstand the dramatic changes to the temperature and chemical composition of sea water, the issue I find most troubling is where the natural gas is extracted in the first place. In B.C, our natural gas reserves originate from shale. But if an industry of LNG export is created, the demand for the raw gas will increase beyond shale capacity, likely leading to an increase in the practice of fracking in order to meed demand.

While the latest Vancouver oil spill was indeed troubling, perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. The media attention it received will hopefully have inspired the population to be cautious of expanding oil and gas exports, and be weary of the potential consequences to one of the most naturally beautiful cities in the world.

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Potential Career Opportunities

May 4th, 2015 by toren

In keeping with the theme of my last entry, it is often hard to know what it is that one wants to do, especially when the potential options are unknown. This has certainly been the case when looking at careers.

However, in the past month, two potential career options have presented themselves serendipitously.

The first lead came from a client at my weekend and summer job working as a water taxi pilot in Howe Sound. By chance, one gentleman overheard a conversation I was having with a regular customer regarding how my studies were going. After explaining my coursework and the various projects I had been working on, the client handed me his card and mentioned that I should send him an email once I had graduated. As it turns out, this man was the general manager at Hemerra Environmental, a boutique consulting firm covering a wide range of projects from wind and hydro installations to environmental assessments for the oil and gas industry.

I was hesitant at first, but have begun to think that consulting may be exactly what I want to pursue. It would involve dealing with many different projects, allowing me to utilize my multi-faceted education and look at problems from many different angles. My hesitation of having anything to do with the oil and gas industry faded away. These are industries that are not going away, why not work from the inside and make them as environmentally responsible as they can be. This is certainly a path that I will be pursuing in the future.


The second opportunity that presented itself was from a guest lecturer in what I consider to be the best course I have taken at UBC, APBI 402 Soil Processes. While working on a case study where we were required to construct a fabricated soil in order to systematically close the Vancouver Landfill, our guest lecturer, the president of Sylvis Environmental was quite inspiring. Sylvis is a residuals management company that primarily uses municipal biosolids as a carbon source in order to create healthy, fabricated soils to remediate sites such as mines and landfills. Being very interested in biosolids as a potential resource, I was immediately intrigued at the possibility of working with Sylvis.

Many APBI 402 students have worked with Sylvis and found it to be a very rewarding experience. I plan on following up and hope to begin working with industry residuals soon!

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Looking Forward After it’s Done.

May 3rd, 2015 by toren

Throughout my GRS career, the questions from friends and parents has always been “so what do you want to do once you’re finished?” or “What kind of jobs are there?”. These are good, difficult questions to answer, because frankly I just don’t know!

For those wanting to become engineers, there is a defined university program for that with well-laid out jobs waiting. Doctors, same thing. There are prescribed routes to become a professional of a certain kind. In studying environmental science, depending on your interests, there may not be a defined job, or even defined industry in which one could say they wanted to work! It is almost as if, in the GRS program, we are saying from the onset that what it is we want to do doesn’t exist yet, and we have to promote ourselves and create the type of job or industry where we want to work in the future. I think this is a pervasive way of thinking for many of us in the program, to not be satisfied with the way things are, with the way things are going and by making things a little harder for ourselves in the beginning,  be ultimately satisfied with ourselves for choosing the path less travelled.

For me, the hardest part about looking at future careers is determining where to focus my interests. I feel that one of the great strengths of the GRS program is the breadth of knowledge that students are able to glean from the variety of courses we are able to choose from, is also dangerous for those of us who can’t make decisions. From design and microbiology to soil science and conservation, my coursework has been varied and I have ben able to draw from these courses in order to enrich projects in future courses, at work, and in daily life. Being able to look at a problem from many sets of eyes is a strength that will certainly be an asset, and at the same time pulls me in different directions.

Having just met with a UBC professor in order to get advice on masters programs, and career direction, I was surprised to hear him tell me to get out of school, start working, and only come back if they tell you to. I left the meeting feeling somewhat disenchanted, but I now realize that this honest response was likely the reality check that I needed in order to begin thinking about the future; don’t focus on what a masters can do for you, think about the career you want and go after it head on, learn from it and leave the comfort of the university.

Not having the need for a prescribed path is what led us to this program in the first place, I suppose that anything done long enough, regardless of how varied, can become a narrow path. The hard part is looking from side to side and finding a turn that leads to the next one to travel down for a while.

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Swedish Exchange Debrief

May 3rd, 2015 by toren

Having returned from my exchange in Uppsala Sweden, I am filled with the desire to return. As mentioned previously, Uppsala has been a university town for over 500 years, meaning that it is has evolved into something quite special and truly unique.


There is a unique tradition at Uppsala in the form of the student “Nations”, half fraternity (without the sleazy connotations) half student club, half inspiration for immensely popular fictional wizard novels. The Nations combine libraries, pubs, sport-clubs, club-nights all under one roof (a roof constructed in the 1800’s for some). Nearly 400 years ago, the Nations began as a place where students from each province of Sweden could meet, get to know one another and show off to the other 12 rival provinces how superior they were. While this tradition still continues, students are no longer relegated to joining  the nation of their home province.

Uppsala University itself is physically beautiful and the education is a style all its own. While most courses do have a dedicated professor leading coursework, guest lecturers are brought in nearly every class to add professional and specific knowledge that no single professor could ever posses. As a teaching method, this was extremely refreshing as we could always look forward to new and interesting topics every class, and most importantly, taught from a different perspective. The CEMUS program as a whole was a great experience, but definitely left some things to be desired. I felt, as many of us did, that the different courses within the program were disconnected, either teaching the same thing or teaching something counter-intuitive having learned it the week before from someone else.

Uppsala as a city is to me the perfect combination of old and new. Cobblestone streets, magnificent castles and cathedrals while containing all the modern shops, and transportation. But best of all, it’s all within walking distance. There is absolutely no need for a car when living in Uppsala, just a trustworthy bicycle (and a pair of gloves) making commuting to school and finding your way back home after a night on the town an easy and enjoyable experience. It was truly liberating to not worry about car maintenance, insurance and parking. In addition, I don’t think I have ever been as fit as I was after walking and biking every day!

All told, I would live there in a heartbeat, if I didn’t live here in Vancouver!

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A Year Exchange In Sweden

December 17th, 2013 by toren

On January 16, I will be leaving for a one-year exchange with Uppsala Universitet in Sweden. The university is the oldest in Sweden, founded in 1477, and is located in the vibrant student-oriented city of Uppsala. Now that finals are over, the reality of the situation has had time to sink in, and I can admit my excitement.

I have been accepted into the CEMUS program, a program dedicated to all aspects of sustainable development. It will be extremely interesting to participate in very specific courses related to my field of study, including Project Management in Sustainable Development, and Sustainable Design. The other aspect of studying in Sweden that I am looking forward to is the way in which classes are taught sequentially, rather than concurrently like at UBC. This allows for students to focus 100% of their energy on a single subject, rather than divided between five subjects. To me, this makes so much sense that it is hard to think of why we have a different approach to education here in Canada.

Having heard much about the Swedish culture from family and friends, I cannot help believe that this is where I was meant to be. So much of my personality, from my initially shy demeanor to my love of saunas, stems from my Swedish roots.

Having been built nearly 500 years ago, the University itself is beautiful and steeped in tradition. In the mid 1600’s the 13 student nations were formed, which are one of Uppsala’s most unique and appealing features. Every student must join one of the nations, which are spread across campus containing pubs, libraries, meeting spaces and housing while organizing events for members. Every day of the week there is an event held by at least one nation, creating a lively nightlife and ensuring the long swedish winters do not get the better of any student.

I eagerly await my arrival in Uppsala, but there is still lots to do before I go!



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Composting and Sequestering Carbon

December 17th, 2013 by toren

Carbon sequestration has become a hot topic when talking about mitigating the effects of global warming. Carbon offset companies are big business, usually planting trees in exchange for fees collected from plane tickets and other greenhouse gas emitting activities.

These trees take approximately 10-17 years until they become a carbon sink. This is because the soil that these trees are planted in is releasing far more carbon than the trees are able to sequester.  This release of carbon comes from the decomposition of organic matter by soil bacteria and fungi. As these soil microbes break down glucose, cellulose, lignin etc… into smaller, simpler molecules. If conditions are right (right microbes, temperature, pH…) these simple organic molecules can condense together to form a humic molecule, or, a complex difficult-to-decompose  molecule.

Humic Molecule


The fact that these large, complex molecules are difficult to decompose, means that carbon is locked away anywhere from 10 to 100 years.

The composting process provides perfect conditions for the formation of humic molecules. It is plausible that composting may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by creating humic molecules as well as mitigating the release of methane and nitrous oxide had the material been sent to the landfill.

These are just some preliminary thoughts which continue to bring to light just how beautifully complex the natural world can be.

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Exciting World of Fungi

December 17th, 2013 by toren

I have always been intrigued by fungi. Their extreme diversity from edible to deadly poisonous and the almost endless configurations of colours, shapes and habitats make fungi truly bizarre. Fungi are immensely important in both the visible, and invisible aspects of our daily lives. From the decomposition of organic matter in soils and the cycling of carbon in ecosystems, to the production of items we use every day (beer, wine, soy sauce, antibiotics….), the lives of humans are inescapably linked to fungi.

The mushroom is likely the most recognizable aspect of a fungus. It is a fascinating fruiting body that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years. The intricacy of spore dispersal some mushrooms employ is bewildering. For example, mushrooms in the genus Agaricales, Boletales, and Polyperales are able to sense their position in space, and grow so their caps are perpendicular to the ground. This maximizes the number of spores that will land on the soil beneath, rather than on the mushroom itself. Another characteristic in these genus of fungi is the method in which they “shoot” their spores. These basidiospores (spores that are forcibly discharged) grow on narrow stalks on the gills or pores of the mushroom. When the spore is mature, water condenses on sugars secreted at the base and top of the spore. When the droplet becomes too large for surface tension to hold it in place, the two droplets rush together, releasing enough energy to break the spore from the stalk and away from the gills.

Another fascinating aspect of fungi is that most species reproduce both sexually and asexually. Whether a fungi requires a mate or not depends on life stage and environmental conditions. For example, Saccharomyces cerivisea the fungi responsible for fermentation, only produces ethanol as a byproduct when it is undergoing sexual reproduction, initiated by a lack of oxygen. The sexual spores of some fungi can even communicate with each other in order to fuse and mate. They release a series of “transmission” and “receiving” pheromones that direct the growing hyphae towards each other.

All-in-all, fungi are extremely complex, and much about them is still not known, or misunderstood. Their ability to evolve and acquire unique adaptations to their environments will continue to interest and confuse researchers, likely indefinitely.

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Compost Facility Update

December 16th, 2013 by toren

Over the past term, there has been great progress on the proposal for a new UBC farm compost facility. Most importantly, the UBC Sustainability Committee has become very interested in this proposal as an attractive option for reaching zero-waste targets by 2015. Support from UBC Sustainability is integral for this project to move forward, so I am thrilled that it is now on the table to be considered for funding.

Recently, the majority of work done on this proposal was to determine if a facility like this could be a cost-effective method of organic waste management. The answer is: it could be.

Like any business, there is an economy of scale to the business of composting. For a coffee shop, the cost of selling one coffee is roughly equal to the sale of one hundred (not including the beans of course); employees, rent, supplies etc.. are still paid regardless of sales. Similarly, the economic sustainability of this compost facility depends on the volume of material moved through the system. Operating at capacity, it is possible that composting on the far, would cost no more than having the organic material sent to an existing facility in Richmond. However, this means that tipping fees and volume of materials received must remain constant, and that all materials accepted would have a tipping fee associated with them. For example, at present only UBC food waste and animal bedding from the UBC animal care facilities carry a tipping fee. Approximately 300 tonnes of UBC yard waste, (valued at $12,000) would not be charged a fee for disposal at the farm, but is needed to blend with food waste in order for complete decomposition.

An official budget and investigation into all possible sources of revenue still needs to be conducted, but it is already apparent that a farm-compost facility has the potential to be economically sustainable. Always more work to do!




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Experimenting With Anaerobic Digestion

April 25th, 2013 by toren


For my last project in microbiology this term, we were to select a microbe, or microbial phenomenon and give a short presentation. Being interested in anaerobic digestion, I chose the process of methanogenesis, the process during anaerobic digestion which produces methane.  Anaerobic digestion is the broad term for turning organic waste into natural gas, including all the stages that material goes through before methane is produced as a byproduct of microbial metabolism, which is the process of methanogenesis.

After realizing that anaerobic digestion is nearly identical to the process of fermentation (with some notably different byproducts…), I decided to use my brewing equipment and the organic waste collected over one week in my Green Bin to see if I could producemethane at home.


Methanogenic archaea (microbes that produce methane as a product of metabolism) require an intermediary step before methane is produced from organic waste, just as brewers yeast requires enzymes to break down starch molecules into simple sugars during the mashing process. For the methanogenic microbes, this intermediary step is the decomposition of larger organic molecules such as proteins, cellulose and carbohydrates into smaller molecules by naturally occurring microbes. These are the same microbes that produce acetic acid (vinegar) from wine in the presence of oxygen. Once the material is sufficiently decomposed, oxygen levels are depleted by microbial activity and carbon dioxide concentration is high, only then will the methanogens begin producing methane. The chemical equation is as follows:

CO2 + 4 H2 → CH4 + 2H2O

The first step in my home anaerobic digestion experiment was to grind the organic material into a uniform pulp and mix it with oxygenated water to kick start the decomposition process.

Currently the mixture is working through the primary stages of decomposition, releasing carbon dioxide through the airlock. Hopefully, in a week or so the methanogenic microbes will get to work and methane capture can begin!







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