Nfld. & Labrador

MUN profs' ideas for post-carbon economy start in their classroom

As the world begins to move toward a post-carbon economy, experts at Memorial University in St. John's are also making the shift, in their research and in their classrooms.

Clean energy is on the research radar sooner rather than later

Memorial University reasearchers and professors, from left, Joel Finnis, Kelly Hawboldt and Greg Naterer are working toward educating and researching sustainable renewable energy technology and what to do once fossil fuel becomes obsolete. (Ted Blades/CBC)

As the world begins to move toward a post-carbon economy, experts at Memorial University in St. John's are also making the shift, in their research and in their classrooms.

"We have a number of initiatives, both academic programs and research activities, that are addressing this challenging issue of climate change," said Dr. Greg Naterer, dean of engineering and applied science at MUN.  

"There are many ways that our professors are developing technologies that are having a reduced impact on the environment, reducing greenhouse gas emissions … as well as teaching in courses that are making students aware of this."

The idea is for Newfoundland and Labrador, and Memorial University, to be at the forefront of a changing research and educational landscape, on both island campuses. 

Researchers in St. John's have partnered with researchers at MUN's Grenfell campus in Corner Brook, to help dig into other sectors outside of oil and gas, such as pulp and paper and fisheries, according to Dr. Kelly Hawboldt, a professor of process engineering. 

"Grenfell is doing a lot with Kruger and the sawmills out that way on ways of using wood and wood residues in places where you would use petroleum products," Hawboldt told CBC Radio's On ​​​​The Go.    

"Everything from polymers to fuels to all sorts of things. We also work with the groups out at Grenfell and across Canada through the Ocean Frontier Institute at looking at fishery resins and how they would replace carbon."

MUN professors are looking not only for ways to replace carbon as fuel and in other products, but also ways to use carbon instead of burning it, according to Hawboldt. 

"The least interesting thing we do with petroleum is burn it. So, there's lots of uses for that carbon outside of just throwing up the CO2 into the atmosphere," she said. 

Don't forget the social sciences

Dr. Joel Finnis, climatologist with the department of geography, says he and his colleagues are focusing on demand for fossil fuels and how to make people realize that some choices made today aren't sustainable long-term.  

Renewable energy is on the agenda for many researchers at Memorial University. (CBC)

"We are spending a lot of time thinking about the kinds of changes we can be making in terms of planning, in terms of food networks etcetera. ... and that kind of research is important as well," he said. 

"Finding alternatives, finding ways to move forward hopefully in a way that's more sustainable."

Finnis believes there's a much larger conversation to be had at the university about the ways the school can change in terms of teaching and researching fossil fuels during a time when the institution is facing budget cuts.

"It's really making it tough for the university to, frankly, adapt," he said.

A province dependent on oil

While Newfoundland and Labrador settles into the newly signed Atlantic Accord deal, which will see additional money coming to the province through offshore oil industry revenues, Finnis said it's difficult for the province to move forward while being stuck in in the mindset that oil will be the fix for all of its economic woes. 

While he's unsure what the solution is, he said, with the university's budget tied to the provincial budget, it further cements the necessity for oil to produce money for the province, 

"We're kind of all stuck hoping for the same kind of revenues that the province is hoping for, and frankly we're all hoping that it's coming from the same source," he said. 

"Even though that seems to be more unlikely, as pressures to reduce our oil consumption keep rising."

However, the oil and gas industry within the province isn't looking to continue to hold all of the energy cards, according to Naterer. He said he has received funding in the past from an oil and gas company to research hydrogen energy and develop technology that uses solar energy for carbon-neutral fuel.

Working together with the oil and gas industry to shift toward a low-carbon and zero-carbon economy will be important, Naterer said. 

Hawboldt, too, has received money from the oil and gas industry to research innovative solutions to lower carbon emissions. She said the province shouldn't be looking for one big solution, but any number of solutions tailored to the province's environment, such as energy generated from tides and wind.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On The Go

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