Entrepreneurship takes on new meaning at the Faculty of Engineering

Spring 2012

Photographs from space of our planet at night show large swaths of North America, Europe and Asia glowing incandescently. The power required to illuminate our towns and cities accounts for 20 per cent of global electricity usage, and 10 per cent of global energy consumption from all sources.

Current light sources function at efficiency ranges between 5 and 20 per cent. Increase this efficiency to something akin to 20 – 50 per cent, and we substantially reduce global electricity consumption.

Zoom in from this cosmic perspective to focus on Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Professor Zetian Mi’s laboratory in the McConnell Engineering Building. Mi is taking on the challenge of developing energy-efficient lighting and currently holds two patents for technologies developed in his laboratory. Indeed, McGill boasts one of the largest patent portfolios of any Canadian university; at the same time, its licensing revenue is relatively low.

William Seath’s, BEng ’52,  recent $2-million gift will address this discrepancy by strengthening the Faculty’s capacity to transfer ideas from its laboratories to the world beyond. The timing is impeccable. Industry investment in academic research has jumped dramatically (as high as 20 per cent between 2009 and 2010 alone) as companies strive to position themselves at the vanguard of technological advances.

In that context, Mi’s work is an imaginative response to a question that has challenged researchers for more than a decade.

Social entrepreneurship also plays a major role at McGill’s Faculty of Engineering, as evidenced by School of Urban Planning Professor Ahmed El-Geneidy’s work in helping to shape government transport policy. The increasingly in-demand young professor is pictured here with members of his research team at one of the growing number of bike racks on campus. Front row (l to r): Undergraduate student Devon Willis, Masters student Cynthia Jacques, El-Geneidy and Masters student Dea Van Lierop. Back row: PhD student Ehab Diab, Masters student Michael Grimsrud, PhD student Kevin Manaugh and Masters student Nicole Foth. See below for details. (Photo: Owen Egan)

“Solid-state lighting such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) uses semiconductors to convert electrical current into light, which in principle can give very high efficiency,”Mi says. “In practice, this has been very difficult to achieve.”

Mi’s research is erasing some of these difficulties. Gallium nitride (GaN) semiconductors emit blue light at high levels of efficiency, but for white light you need a mixture of blue, red and green light. To obtain red and green wavelengths, another element — indium — must be added, but the resulting InGaN mix reduces efficiency to less than 5 per cent. So instead companies have created white light by coating blue LEDs with a thin layer of phosphor, which then converts the blue light into red and green, enabling the LED to glow white. But this process also comes with a 30 per cent energy loss caused by heating, which also degrades the coating and reduces the life of the lamp.

GaN nanowires research at McGill (Photo: Songrui Zhao)

Mi has discovered how to inject GaN semiconductors with indium without creating the problems traditionally associated with that element. The answer lies in GaN nanowires, sliced into billions of small sections, densely packed, and then injected with InGaN quantum dots. “With each added quantum dot, we alter the nanowire composition and thus the wavelength emissions, so that each nanowire can be adjusted to emit white light,” he says.

Patents and production lines

His team has also developed a way of growing these nanowires on silicon substrate, saving money (as other groups use a much more costly sapphire substrate) while also improving the yield, because the silicon offers better consistency in the quality of the final product. The result is efficiency rates of up to 60 per cent at 300 amps/cm2. “So we can have white light LED emissions giving better efficiency and longer reliability, at lower manufacturing costs and better yield,” he says.

The research has led to the aforementioned patents, one covering the growth of GaN nanowires, the other for strategies to help create highly efficient white-light-emitting GaN LEDs. His group, in collaboration with McGill Chemistry Department Professor Pat Kambhampati, recently received investments from MSBi Valorisation and MDEIE to develop this technology for commercialization, and the research is drawing attention from major industry players, including Philips Lumileds and General Electric.

Says Mi, “our goal now is to develop semiconductor wafers for LED companies so they can integrate the devices into their production lines.”

Carrying the plasma torch

Chemical Engineering Department Professor Sylvain Coulombe is an expert in processing plasma, an electricity-conducting gas with high chemical reactivity, making it perfect for use as a sterilizing agent. When he met Valérie Léveillé, PhD’06, in 2002, he recognized a kindred spirit: she was intelligent, energetic and committed to developing innovative technologies with commercial potential. He convinced her to continue doctoral research instead of going directly into industry after completing her Masters degree, and together they set out to develop a small, portable and precise cold plasma torch.

Professor Sylvain Coulombe and former student Valérie Léveillé believe their cold plasma torch invention could make them global leaders in plasma-based medical technologies. (Photo: Owen Egan)

“From a scientific point of view this project was very challenging, but we saw many potential applications,” says Coulombe. The end result: the Atmospheric Pressure Glow Discharge Torch, or APGD-t, a 0.5mm cold plasma torch that established them as pioneers in their field. They patented the design and after graduation Léveillé launched NexPlasmaGen Inc. to commercialize the technology, with Coulombe acting as a consultant.

“My intention was to make the torch super-localized, so that someone could use it to treat as few as three or four cells at a time,” Léveillé says.

While she anticipates that NexPlasmaGen Inc. is two to three years from bringing its product to market, she has a clear sense of applications to be addressed by the initial phase of her technology.

Multiple applications

The first involves treating chronic wounds, as the cold plasma torch is perfect for sterilizing wounds locally by removing biofilms and then accelerating the healing process.

NexPlasmaGen Inc. President Valérie Léveillé, PhD’06, is developing and commercializing a tool invented at McGill Engineering to disinfect wounds more quickly and effectively. (Photo: Owen Egan)

Since the plasma research community is growing worldwide, laboratories will need a tool that is very precise — and as NexPlasmaGen Inc.’s torch can be calibrated to produce reactive chemical species at the desired concentration levels, Léveillé will also market it as a research tool. Future applications involve treating chronic inflammations within the body, such as those associated with bronchitis or arthritis, and eventually cancer treatment.

“I really am an applied engineer who needs to see the application,” Léveillé says. “When doing my doctorate, I had no doubt that this technology would be designed, tested and used.”

Social entrepreneurs

Not all research efforts lead to patents, of course. Many faculty members are involved in what might be termed “social entrepreneurship,” bringing ideas to governments and other policy-makers.

“Traffic research has traditionally focused on how quickly you can get from one point to another,” says School of Urban Planning Professor Ahmed El-Geneidy, leader of the Transportation Research at McGill (TRAM) group. El-Geneidy was recently identified as the third most influential researcher in the field of design, urban design and urban planning in Canada. The research catching so much attention involves developing novel accessibility measures that evaluate what you can reach by different transport modes in particular regions.

Ahmed El-Geneidy (Photo: Owen Egan)

“We can assess accessibility for cars, bikes, buses or the subway, and then compare them. The higher the immediate accessibility, the less travel, because you have more opportunity around you,” he says. “Accessibility affects quality of life.”

Soon after arriving at McGill in 2007, El-Geneidy met with a Quebec Transport Ministry (MTQ) representative interested in applying his accessibility measures to Montreal. El-Geneidy and his TRAM group developed the necessary conceptual tools and offered a workshop to the MTQ. Since then accessibility measures have been increasingly an aspect of MTQ traffic and transit evaluations, helping to shape transport policy. He and his team are currently developing accessibility measures to help Toronto-based Metrolinx evaluate its future transit plans for the Toronto-Hamilton region, and El-Geneidy is currently one of four researchers helping the MTQ develop its long-term transport vision.

Final year undergraduate students in Mechanical Engineering are required to solve real-word problems that test their creativity and competence. The small and highly manoeuvrable Draganflyer X8 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) above is manufactured by Saskatoon-based Draganfly Innovations Inc. Matt Michini, Michael Meguid, Harold Day and Simon Perez Santa Maria were part of a team that suggested design changes to improve the vehicle’s stability and control. Their work formed part of the annual MECH463 Exhibit held at McGill Engineering to promote university-industry collaboration and give younger students a taste of what it means to be an engineer. Click on photo for link. (Photo:Owen Egan)

His expertise with accessibility measures and focused research on public transit planning and operations, as well as travel behavior, have made him a sought-after advisor. He has spoken on transit issues before the World Bank and the U.S. Transportation Research Board’s Transit Research Analysis Committee, advising the American Federal Transit Administration on its research and development program.

Essential partnerships

While El-Geneidy’s accessibility research can be applied to all modes of transportation, he focuses on public transit. “I love buses,” he laughs. “They’re my life.” In 2009 the Société de Transport de Montréal (STM) wanted an express bus for the #67-Saint-Michel route in east Montreal, which was carrying close to 40,000 passengers daily. The regular #67 bus would continue, but would be complemented by the new #467 Saint-Michel express, which would have fewer stops. But which stops should be included, and how much time could be saved?

The STM turned to El-Geneidy, who, working with his graduate students, developed statistical models to design several configurations for the new route, identifying expected time savings. When the STM implemented the new route, it was based on El-Geneidy’s research; his TRAM team then followed this success with several studies to evaluate the performance of the new route.

Evaluating sustainability in traffic options

Civil Engineering Department Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou, another of the McGill Engineering’s prominent young “social entrepreneurs,” is evaluating the sustainability – environmental, social and economic – of different transportation options using comprehensive computer simulation models to measure traffic flow and emissions.

Recently she worked with a borough in Montreal called Plateau-Mont-Royal to assess the borough’s new strategies to move traffic from residential streets to main arteries. She and her team developed a comprehensive computer model of the entire region that simulates traffic behaviour, including periods of idling, acceleration and deceleration at stop signs and lights.

Marianne Hatzopoulou (Photo: Owen Egan)

She then linked this data to models providing estimates of pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions, air quality generation and population exposure.

“The research starts with a policy decision or an idea. Then we develop a model that can evaluate the impact of this decision or idea on the different dimensions of sustainability,” she explains.

Green alternatives

“We’re developing a cause and effect chain, starting with traffic, looking at emissions and dispersion, at air quality, and at where people are living and what kind of emissions levels they will be exposed to.”

Hatzopoulou also collaborates with professors in epidemiology to quantify the health impact of different transportation policies. “This adds a new dimension to decision-making, where you are not just looking at traffic but at its net effect, including health,” she says. “And with these models, we can generate an analysis showing who is polluting where, who is breathing what, and how we can assign responsibility for emissions.”

Hatzopoulou has also investigated the air pollution exposure of cyclists. “Many North American cities are promoting cycling as a green alternative, but if we don’t do anything about the cars on the road, those people who would be responsible for the success of such policies are exposed to higher emissions, especially as cyclists ride very close alongside the street, breathing at a higher rate.” She and her team have recently designed a Web-based application that will inform Montreal cyclists of low-pollution alternative routes.

Accelerating the process

To achieve their full potential, the fruits of Faculty research like that of Hatzopoulou, El-Geneidy, Léveillé, Coulombe and Mi must be transferred to the public realm. “We have a lot of great people coming up with super ideas and inventions, but we don’t always know where to go with them,” says Coulombe.

The industry liaison position established with the Seath gift will accelerate the process of bringing these ideas to people and companies who can commercialize them. “We need these partnerships,” says Coulombe. “We need to develop and nurture these bonds.”

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