Engineering degree no ‘waste’ of time

Think of algae. Is the first thing that pops to mind a thick, slimy green blanket covering portions of open water? If so, Amarjeet Bassi asks you to look at it a different way.

The chemical and biochemical engineering professor says the biodiversity of microalgae is enormous and represents an almost untapped resource. So much so, he grows his own.

“We want to find sustainable ways of improving the quality of life,” Bassi says. “We use biological systems that are naturally found in the environment and we engineer our process so we can utilize those systems.”

In fact, in collaboration with a local Ilderton farm, Bassi is testing a liquid byproduct as a nutrient source for growing microalgae to produce oil, which can be converted to bio-diesel. Leftover algae are a high-value protein supplement; leftover water can be cleaned and used as drinking water for the cows.

The algae production process uses minimum energy – using only natural light, carbon dioxide captured from burning the methane gas and waste effluent – to produce a high-value product, he says.

“So why use algae?” Bassi questions. “You can basically use waste water; so it does not compete with food or other systems. You don’t really need large amounts of land to do this; so you can have more compact systems. When you have run-off from the fertilizer the algae starts to grow, which is perhaps why a lot of people think it’s not a good thing.”

Knowing algae are beneficial, the idea now is to “close the loop” on the farm. While a farm produces value, it also produces waste, such as manure and carbon monoxide. “If you can capture value from that it can improve the economics of the farm,” Bassi says. “As well you will get clean water. So instead of dumping the water in the environment, you can clean the water and reuse it on the farm. It is basically a self-sustaining farm.”

While his research has potential to make major strides in the developing world, such as areas where clean water remains an issue, Bassi realizes most first-year students won’t immediately be interested in the idea of research while at Western. However, a new program being introduced this September in Western Engineering may soon change that attitude.

Designed for the incoming class, WE Go Global is a certificate program involving several components.

Key among them, students study a broader spectrum of global issues as well as a foreign language of their choosing. “Normally engineering students don’t take language, so this will really give them an edge,” Bassi says. “Engineering has become global now so we are Canadian who work in China, Japan and India. Most students when they graduate are actually travelling and working with international companies. One year will not give you complete control over the language, however it will be a starting point and open some doors.”

This learning is followed by a 12-week experience working overseas or taking advantage of an exchange opportunity. “I’m jealous myself,” Bassi laughs. “It’s a huge opportunity for these students.”

Closer to home, in what has become a favourite tradition among first-year students, the annual design competition sees groups of five-to-six students team up for their project. This year’s theme – Engineering and Society – will see Western go head-to-head against fellow first-year engineering students from across Ontario.

“It will be an open-ended problem, such as design something to help society,” says Bassi, noting this year’s first-year numbers will be hovering around the 400 mark. “But they’ll need to think about what they want to design, why they should design it, what the goals are and so on. They will then build a prototype and test it.”

The designs and ideas hatched from such design competitions is what keeps Bassi excited going into his 18th year at Western.

“The big advantage of working at a university is that it makes you feel so young,” he says, adding the students look younger and younger each year. “You have such fresh minds with new and innovative ideas, and a lot of them will become our future leaders.”