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A saviour fungus and other green research

The list of environmental challenges facing society seems to grow longer and more complex each day: climate change, clean energy production, habitat degradation. Luckily, researchers at Canada's universities and colleges are working hard at solving these problems and some of them are having impressive success. Here are three notable research projects.

Thriving through fungus

Susan Kaminskyj, biology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, is working on finding an economical way to restore the damaged landscape of northeastern Alberta that has been indelibly altered as a result of oil sands production.

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Thousands of kilometres of boreal forest and peat bog are being stripped away to reach the sticky oil-rich sand that lies beneath. Once extracted, the oil sands are mixed with a stew of water, steam and hazardous chemicals to separate the bitumen from the sand, leaving behind vast mounds of chemical-laced sand tailings. "In a sense they are a toxic desert," Dr. Kaminskyj says.

The solution, she believes, lies in a tiny fungus found in dandelions and sow thistles, two of the few plants able to survive in the hostile environment. Dr. Kaminskyj and graduate student Xiaohui Bao extracted the fungus, reproduced it in the lab, and used it to inoculate wheat and tomato seedlings, which were then transplanted into tailing sands. The seedlings that had been treated with the fungus thrived while those that hadn't withered.

"If you can grow a tomato in tailing sands you can grow anything," Dr. Kaminskyj says. But the objective is to introduce plants and shrubs that will restore the tailings back to the natural environment that once existed. "If you can successfully establish a grassland, natural processes will convert the grassland into bushland and the bushland into forest," she says.

There are other methods to achieve this goal, but the benefit of using fungi is that it's "fast and cheap," she says. "It's very straightforward and easy to do if you have the proper fungus."

Dr. Kaminskyj's research findings could have broader implications for agriculture since seeds treated with certain fungi will germinate faster and retain water more efficiently. "Potentially, you could grow more food on the prairies without irrigation," she says, which would save water, protect the soil and reduce farming costs. And as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, the implications of her research could be broader still. "I think this has huge potential," she says.

Yummy fish feces

On Canada's west coast, Stephen Cross, marine ecologist and director of the Coastal Aquaculture Research and Training Network at the University of Victoria, is working on a way to reduce the environmental impact of waste generated by fish farms.

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As worldwide stocks of wild fish decline, a growing number of fish farms have stepped in to fill the breach, providing consumers with millions of tonnes of seafood. But these large-scale farms can also have a devastating impact on the marine environment, releasing untreated fecal waste into the surrounding water.

Dr. Cross has come up with an ecological way to treat the waste while at the same time increase seafood production. The key, he says, lies in the centuries-old practice of polyculture.

Fish farms typically produce a single species of fish, such as salmon or oysters. Dr. Cross has developed a method of farming several species of fish, shellfish and plants that work symbiotically. "They also have a commercial value which makes it more of an incentive to develop this kind of system," he says.

Dr. Cross has tested the concept on his own privately-owned research farm located off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island in Kyuquot Sound. Here he operates a small commercial sea farm that is expected to produce 300 tonnes of sablefish (also known as black cod) a year, 60 tonnes of scallops, 50 tonnes of mussels and oysters and 15 tonnes of kelp.

The way the system works is that only one species, in this case sablefish, is fed. The waste generated from the sablefish along with any uneaten food, falls through the fish cages and settles on the sea floor. A second waste stream, fine particles that drift among the tidal currents, moves downstream from the cages, and a third stream, nutrients like nitrogen, dissolve into the water.

The farm incorporates other species of fish and plants that feed from and filter the waste generated by the sablefish. Sea cucumbers are placed on the sea floor below the cages to graze on the solid waste that settles there. Downstream, scallops, oysters and mussels filter the fine waste particles from the water and several species of kelp absorb the dissolved nitrogen. All the fish and kelp will be harvested and sold.

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After spending the past four years trying to find the right balance of fish, shellfish and kelp, Dr. Cross is getting ready to harvest the sablefish for the first time and scallops will likely soon follow. He plans to sell them to local restaurants and fresh fish markets.

"Rather than trying to use technology to extract the waste from the ocean to keep the environment clean, we're designing an ecological system," Dr. Cross explains. The added advantage is that it also increases seafood production. "You're not just solving an environmental issue. You're also potentially creating jobs," he says. "It's kind of neat."

Back to virgin rubber

One of today's most vexing environmental issues is what to do with used automotive tires. Some 300 million scrap tires are produced every year in North America, according to one estimate. Some of them are ground into pellets and used to make playground surfaces or mixed with asphalt. But the uses for recycled rubber are limited. Many of the tires have traditionally been burned but jurisdictions such as Ontario and California are moving to prohibit the practice. In the meantime, the spent tires accumulate in large stockpiles.

"Of course there are environmental problems related to that because we've seen in the past huge fires from these stockpiles of tires," says Costas Tzoganakis, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo. The tires can also fill with water after a rainfall and provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other pests. "And you have a material that you put a lot of effort into making so why throw it out or burn it? Why not reuse it," he asks.

Dr. Tzoganakis has come up with a way to do just that.

After rubber is extracted from trees it is treated with sulphur, a process known as vulcanization, to give it its hard, durable and elastic properties. But it is this very process that makes vulcanized rubber difficult to recycle since it can't be melted down. "It's like a solid that cannot go back to its original state," Dr. Tzoganakis explains.

Over the past 10 years Dr. Tzoganakis has been working on a way to reverse the vulcanization process. "If you can devulcanize the rubber, you can melt it down and mix it with virgin rubber or cure it again," he explains. Then it can be turned into new tires or other rubber products such as automotive sealants or shoe soles.

Dr. Tzoganakis's patented process turns scrap tires into a recycled rubber product with many of same physical properties and strength as virgin rubber. The new product, which he calls tyromer, can be used as a rubber substitute or blended with natural rubber and reformulated into new products.

Last year, Dr. Tzoganakis launched a spin-off company to commercialize the process. The company, Tyromer Inc., is currently in talks with tire manufacturers, shoe companies and auto parts makers to find a market for its product.

With the price of natural rubber high and government incentives to encourage the use of recycled materials, Tyromer seems ready to take off. "I think the timing is very good," Dr. Tzoganakis says.

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