Sustainable Engineering in Remote Areas

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Research Themes

SERA trainees will conduct world-class research combining engineering and physics to solve problems of energy sustainability and development in remote areas and Aboriginal communities. The research is divided into two themes: (1) renewable energy, and (2) energy efficient buildings.

Theme 1: Renewable energy systems

The main research challenge is to develop effective renewable energy options for remote and northern regions in Canada. Advanced structural health monitoring techniques are also being adapted for remote regions to allow for enhanced maintenance strategies for renewable energy projects. The emphasis will be on solar (photovoltaic (PV) and thermal), wind and hydro turbines and biomass.


The Applied Sustainability group at Queen’s is exploring the effects of snow and enhanced coatings on solar photovoltaic arrays using a unique solar PV farm and the economic viability of populating First Nation rooftops for PV at Constance Lake FN. Trainees will examine the suitability of hybrid energy systems, combining two or more renewable energy types (i.e. biomass and solar) to create dispatchable, dependable power for remote communities. Trainees will not only face the technological issues associated with cold-weather environments, they will also be required to find novel ways to integrate hybrid energy systems into communities that may have limited access to grid electricity. They will also consider new energy storage concepts, such as vanadium-based fuel cells.


Biomass is an ideal material for supplying combined heat and power facilities in Northern communities, particularly in places where stranded pulp and paper assets exist. Existing infrastructure can lower costs significantly, making projects economically feasible. Other means of reducing costs include exploring locations where plantation forestry might be practiced (e.g., the Hearst Forest).  Trainees will consider hybrid solar-biomass energy systems applied to both large and small scale installations and will explore new bioenergy systems using economic and environmental assessment tools.

Turbine Technology

Trainees will adapt a new generation of composite wind turbine towers consisting of light weight multi-cell segments making them ideal for remote communities where the high cost of transportation make steel towers prohibitive. Funding has been approved by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency to manufacture and build a number of such towers for Newfoundland and Labrador based Newfound Energies.  Another promising, rapid, simple, and durable technology for wind towers is concrete-filled fibre reinforced polymer (FRP) tubes (CFFTs) where the FRP tubes provide stay-in-place forms for casting concrete and the structural reinforcement at the same time, replacing all or part of the steel reinforcement that is susceptible to corrosion. Trainees will optimize the CFFT system for Northern applications and will investigate incorporating natural fibres (e.g., switchgrass) as replacement fibres for glass in the FRP tubes. Trainees will also develop robust and suitable turbine technology for micro-hydroelectric applications in the North.

Sensing and Monitoring

For effective operation of sustainable energy systems in remote areas, innovative and adaptable sensing technology for structural monitoring is essential. Systems with tremendous potential for such monitoring include fibre optic and wireless sensors that offer long-term sensor precision, distributed sensing, and wireless connections that are vital to infrastructure monitoring. A wired physical connection dramatically increases the cost of monitoring systems. Wireless sensors are an attractive solution. Fibre optic sensors also offer advantages such as high precision and distributed sensors where point sensors are inadequate. Trainees will participate in solving the most challenging problems faced in the application of these sensors, such as understanding the effects of temperature, determining which data is critical for assessment, and developing better data handling and visualization schemes. They will work on new types of wireless sensors that require little or no battery power to measure corrosion, chemical changes, or other damage to sustainable energy systems. Trainees will work on advancing the use of fibre optic systems that measure strain over small gauge lengths to detect subtle changes such as cracks. Trainees will also develop next generation sensing to incorporate high precision, dynamic and multi-function monitoring capability in addition to simple static monitoring. Additionally, fibre optic sensors that employ micro and nano-fibres will be developed and employed to detect deterioration mechanisms such as corrosion and high relative humidity. The students joining the research team will be trained in the limitations of each instrument to be better prepared for trouble-shooting, and will acquire skills that can be easily transferred to other instruments by an understanding of the underlying physics.  

Theme 2: Sustainable and energy efficient buildings

In Canada, buildings are responsible for 33 percent of all energy used, 50 percent of natural resources consumed, and 35 percent of greenhouse gases. Consumers, policy makers, and industry recognize the urgent need for “sustainable” and energy efficient buildings to assist with climate change issues. In 2004, 38 Canadian home builders formed the Net-Zero Energy Home Coalition to “advance the benefits of the more efficient use of zero or very low impact resources.” 

Sustainable northern buildings

Trainees will investigate appropriate building systems for remote communities that can meet the goal of “energy efficiency” while at the same time considering structural performance and other important goals of sustainability (environmental impact of the materials, cultural impact of the building, climate change and indoor air quality). Trainees will investigate the full energy impact of the building, i.e., operational energy as well as the energy required to produce and transport the materials. Trainees will study combinations of conventional materials with non-conventional materials (e.g. straw bale construction, switchgrass).

Light-weight building systems

Insulated sandwich panels have been extensively researched and studies have shown that they could be as much as 14 times lighter than reinforced concrete walls of the same strength with exceptional insulation capacity making this system ideal for construction in remote areas. Trainees will focus on developing systems that could be readily transported to remote communities, and easily constructed, and maintained with local resources. 

Monitoring systems for buildings

Trainees will integrate sensing technology from Theme 1 into these energy efficient buildings to monitor their efficiency and to further improve the systems based on feedback from field measurements. The sensors will be adapted to monitor environmental parameters such as temperature, humidity and CO levels as well as air movement to assist in maintaining healthy indoor air quality and energy efficiency.