New chairs advance Alberta's research economy

(Edmonton) Seven new research chairs at the University of Alberta will play a key role in advancing the health and economic interests of Albertans through the Campus Alberta Innovates Program (CAIP).

Alberta Enterprise and Advanced Education created CAIP in 2011 to enhance research in four strategic areas: energy and environment, food and nutrition, neuroscience/prions and water. Seven of the first 16 CAIP chairs will be based at the U of A, adding new capacity to complement the institution’s already exceptional talent, said Lorne Babiuk, U of A vice-president of research.

“Our seven Campus Alberta Innovates Program chairs will bring a wealth of expertise and networks to enhance the University of Alberta’s strengths as Alberta’s flagship university,” said Babiuk. “Their research will find solutions to important questions, challenges and opportunities that matter to Albertans, driving the diversification of our economy and improving health outcomes.”

Tapping geothermal energy

CAIP chairs are seven-year appointments designed to attract talent from outside Alberta.

Inga Moeck was among the first CAIP chairs to arrive on campus when she started in January 2013 as chair of Enhanced Geothermal Energy Systems—the first such chair position in the world. Moeck is familiar with the U of A from her time with GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, part of the Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative. Her mission at the U of A is to break new ground in geothermal research and make it economically viable.

With all the focus on oil and gas production in Alberta, geothermal energy has been a relatively untapped area of research. But Alberta’s expertise in hydrocarbon production, its cold climate and a growing demand for sustainable energy also makes it an ideal fit for geothermal, Moeck said.

“From many perspectives, this is a unique place to do research,” Moeck said. “The U of A has all these different disciplines that are needed to develop new technology like geothermal; we just need to bring them all together.”

Moeck said there’s great potential in leveraging Alberta’s expertise in unconventional hydrocarbon reservoirs such as shale gas and transferring that knowledge to geothermal. With 360,000 wells in Alberta, if just 0.01 per cent of these wells were reused for geothermal, we would save one million tonnes of CO2 emissions in a year, she said.

Turning geothermal into an economically viable industry won’t happen overnight, but industry and the international research community in Europe are taking notice of Moeck’s work.

“The interest in geothermal is growing and it’s very, very active. We’re working with industry to help them understand that this will be part of our future.”

Shaping environment and energy policy

Emilson Silva started last July as chair of Innovation Policy and Technology Translation in Water and Energy, after six years at the Ivan Allen College School of Economics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. During his first visit to the U of A nearly three years ago, Silva was impressed with the research climate and the opportunity to work closely with other disciplines as well as industry and government.

“I saw the U of A as a unique opportunity to come here and work on topics that not only would interest me, but also would offer the possibility of making contributions to society and potentially shape economic policy that would be desirable from a social standpoint, for Canada and for other countries,” he said.

Silva’s research uses a tool called game theory to develop models to rationalize and forecast behaviour. In the past he has spent considerable time looking at government practices in environmental and energy policy, climate change and acid rain. His position at the U of A provides an opportunity to study oil and gas producers and how they interact with government officials and regulations, he said.

“In these few months I’ve been able to connect with people in both industry and government, and the environment I’ve encountered here for research has been very encouraging.”

UAlberta CAIP chairs

The University of Alberta has recruited the following CAIP chairs after international searches:

  • Inga Moeck, Enhanced Geothermal Energy Systems (Faculty of Science)
  • Emilson Silva, Innovation Policy and Technology Translation in Water and Energy (Alberta School of Business)
  • Joao Soares, Interfacial Polymer Engineering for Oilsands Processing (Faculty of Engineering)

Recruitment is underway for the remaining chairs.