By Mark Lowey
Roberto Aguilera leads a team of researchers, including students, determined to develop commercially viable methods of extracting methane from trapped gas deposits.
Researcher Roberto Aguilera seeks to unlock a huge buried treasure of natural gas.
“First, we must understand the rocks. That is the cornerstone of this whole project,” says Aguilera, who holds the ConocoPhillips Chair in Tight Gas Engineering at the University of Calgary.
Aguilera, a Calgary petroleum engineer for nearly 30 years, joined the U of C in 2006 to head a new research team based in the Schulich School of Engineering. The team is focused on finding economic ways to produce so-called unconventional “tight” gas deposits in Canada, found mainly in Alberta and northeastern British Columbia.
Tight gas is methane (the gas used to heat our homes) that is trapped underground in relatively impermeable, geologically tight rock formations; it doesn’t flow readily through the rocks into wells so it can be brought to the surface. There is a pressing need to develop new methods and technologies to extract as much of this tight gas as possible, Aguilera notes.
Natural gas production in 2007 is expected to decline by 2.2 percent over 2006. “This research program is going to be a very effective way of fighting against that decline in natural gas production,” Aguilera says.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates there are about 58 trillion cubic feet of conventional gas reserves remaining in Canada that could be economically produced. That amounts to less than four percent of the estimated 1,500 trillion cubic feet of tight gas deposits in place.
“If we can recover just 10 to 20 percent of the tight gas, that’s fantastic. It’s truly a lot of gas,” Aguilera says. His five-year research program brings together U of C researchers from engineering, geosciences and economics. Their aim is to first thoroughly characterize tight gas formations, including natural fractures in rocks through which gas flows. They will then develop cost-efficient, environmentally sound ways to drill for, extract and produce the gas.
The research team, which will include about a dozen graduate and post-doctoral students, also has received funding from the federal Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Alberta Energy Research Institute.
Aguilera expects to have, within five years, pilot wells in the field that are producing commercial amounts of tight gas. “We anticipate that we’ll develop technologies that will be exportable to other countries. That will benefit the university and it will also benefit Canadian companies doing business in other places in the world.”
By Michelle Cook
You’ve heard the stereotype about engineers. They’re better at math and technology than they are at communicating. But is this true when engineers from all over the world work together using English as a common language?
To find out, Faculty of Education professor David Watt has been shadowing Canadian and foreign-trained engineers on the job across Alberta to assess the level of English language proficiency needed to practice successfully in Canada. Watt is undertaking the study at time when Canadian companies are increasingly recruiting engineers from overseas to help ease labour shortages.
“Thirty to 40 years ago, language proficiency wasn’t considered something you needed to look at but now we recognize that most of Canada’s future workforce growth is going to come from the occupational integration of immigrants and, for many, English is not their first language,” says Watt. “If we want to achieve real integration, we need to be able to accurately measure language proficiency in professions like engineering, alongside skills and knowledge.”
Alberta has over 31,000 registered engineers, the country’s highest per capita ratio. Currently, there is no way to assess a foreign-trained engineer’s ability to communicate effectively in English in the field. Watt says accurately measuring English language proficiency is important to ensure safety and strengthen professional practice.
“Engineers often work in intellectual isolation to solve problems. They don’t necessarily have to use a great deal of prose to do their job well but they do have to come back and communicate solutions to others. If they can’t do that effectively and accurately, it can cause misunderstandings that lead to problems,” says Watt.
Working with the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists, and Geophysicists of Alberta (APEGGA), the province’s regulatory body for engineers, Watt collected and examined the email messages, reports, phone calls, presentations and conversations of 65 Canadian and foreign-trained engineers at 11 companies.
The goal of the study, funded by Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry, is to identify the threshold of English language proficiency foreign-trained engineers need and use this to develop a language assessment tool that APEGGA could use as a criterion for granting P.Eng licensure. Once in place, the tool would be the first of its kind in Canada.
By Jennifer Myers
Marcia Epstein is studying the impact of sound on your environment. Her discoveries might encourage you to turn down the volume.
Close your eyes and listen to the sounds inside your office, on the street corner or in the mall. Have you thought about the impact the rattle of your computer, the hum of the traffic, or buzz of the overhead lights have on you?
Marcia Epstein, professor in the Faculty of Communication and Culture, says that too often we underestimate our sense of hearing and the effect of noise and silence within our environment. “Learning how to use our auditory sense to listen consciously and be aware of soundscapes can have important implications for our health and social interaction,” she says.
Epstein describes a soundscape as much like a landscape, but instead of being composed of the visual, it is the combination of sounds that are around us in any given moment. Epstein and her students map the soundscapes in diverse locales as hospitals, shopping malls, city streets and farms. “We listen to the ambient sounds of a place at different times of day, describe the sounds, where they come from, how long they last and the loudness of them.”
Epstein argues that as our culture evolves and new technologies are developed, as the population increases and industry encroaches on farm land—all of these have the potential to alter the soundscape in any environment from the wide-open prairies to the office. She explores the physical, health and social implications of soundscapes in our personal and public environments and the interrelations between noise, speech and silence.
“People don’t protect their hearing, they take it for granted. For example, the volume capacity of any MP3 player is capable of damaging hearing,” she says. “There are no laws or public awareness campaigns that protect people from listening too loudly.” But as Epstein is finding, the implications are even more complicated.
“Use of MP3 players also produces personal isolation to the point that interpersonal communication might prove to be endangered,” she says. “Children who are raised on MP3 players have fewer opportunities to develop habitual skills like cooperation and might be less able to deal effectively with situations where they have to act as a group.”
MP3 players create a highly personalized soundscape, but often the noise in our environments comes from public spaces, making it an inescapable stressor. Noise, in fact, can increase instances of insomnia and migraine headaches, and contribute to stress-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease and stroke.
“Hospitals themselves are noisy places,” Epstein says. “The noise of the machinery in hospital rooms and the sleep interruption patients face because of nearby conversations, or a noisy cart being pushed down the hallway increases stress levels and disrupts the healing process.”
For Epstein, tuning into the noises in our environments is the first step to identifying potential problems. Eliminating noise by creating quiet zones or implementing soothing sounds through music or windchimes are some of the ways to combat the negative stressors of noise in public spaces.