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Author: Sheri Doyle

At the Heart of the Region

If energy is the backbone of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region, then Alberta’s Industrial Heartland is its heartbeat.  

The petrochemical cluster in the region is nothing short of impressive. A concentration of world-class energy refining and processing operations, Alberta’s Industrial Heartland is the largest hydrocarbon processing centre in Canada.

It sits at the heart of petrochemical activity in Western Canada, turning traditional energy production on its head with new innovations, eco-friendly operations, and business ventures that are capturing international attention and investment.  

Ready for the world

More than 40 national and multinational companies operate in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland, representing over $40 billion in current capital investment.  

It’s one of the world’s most attractive locations for advanced chemistry manufacturing and value-added energy processing. The range of feedstock from natural gas liquids and refining by-products mean more manufacturing opportunities than ever.  

Businesses looking to access this feedstock to produce refined petroleum products and petrochemicals can look no further than Alberta’s Industrial Heartland.  

Investors also benefit from the region’s proximity to the world’s 3rd largest oil reserves — a secure, nearby crude oil source for both domestic and international refineries.

New investment opportunities include:

  • Electrical co-generation
  • Phenol production for resin in composite board products
  • Ethyl hexyl nitrate as phenol formaldehyde diesel cetane enhancer
  • Hydrogen transfer, hydrogen fuel cells
  • Ethanol Amines
  • Spent hydrocracking catalyst recovery – nickel and vanadium
  • Waste heat recovery, conversion, and utilization
  • CO2 capture, aggregation, and sequestration
  • Warehousing and packaging

Access to global markets through efficient transportation infrastructure, paired with research and development opportunities, are creating a thriving export culture.

A sustainable future in mind

Alberta’s Industrial Heartland is guided by a non-profit association of municipalities dedicated to sustainable eco-industrial development. Bringing business and community leaders together means a shared vision and resources. It just makes business sense.  

With over 20 major facilities in one large area, the value of this cooperation is made obvious through economic gains, improved environmental quality, and shared human resources.  

Creating more eco-friendly operations is second nature here.  

Ground-breaking technology like carbon capture and storage (CSS) stores emissions from energy operations deep underground to effectively lower the Heartland’s carbon footprint. Shell Quest is the first facility of its kind to use CCS to store a million tonnes of CO2 per year— the equivalent of taking 250,000 cars off the road.

An eco-industrial plan also takes a birds-eye-view on development, including considerations for land use, traffic management, wastewater policies, and social impacts on neighbouring communities to name a few.

What’s next?  

The sky is the limit. Future development is planned to increase the region’s bitumen upgrading capacity, pipeline network, and petrochemical processing capabilities. Inter Pipeline is constructing a propane dehydrogenation and polypropylene complex, and Pembina is venturing with Petrochemical Industries Co. (PIC) to create the Canada Kuwait Petrochemical Corporation which is also currently constructing a propane dehydrogenation and polypropylene facility.

Looking for more reasons to invest? Visit industrialheartland.com for more information and an investment brochure.  

Researchers are looking to technology and education to help prepare for the increasing number of fires predicted

Fast moving wildfire, flames and smoke are encompassing everything.

As another wildfire season is well underway in Alberta, it’s important to know what fire researchers are doing to help predict and prepare for future fires.

Wildfires need three things to live: an ignition source; fuels to burn; and fire-conducive weather. Once started, wildfires can spread rapidly, especially during extreme fire weather conditions —hot, dry and windy.Researchers anticipate that wildfire activity will increase in some parts of Canada due to climate change. Such climate-driven changes in future wildfire regimes could lead to increased burning due to a positive feedback loop: more fires mean more greenhouse gas emissions, and this could lead to more warming and thus more fires, and the cycle continues.

“More extremes are likely in the future,” said professor Mike Flannigan, a wildland fire expert in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences. “It doesn’t take much change in climate to cause a fire.”

While we can never eliminate the risk of loss from wildfire, there are projects underway that aim to help monitor and predict wildfires, thereby giving communities more time to prepare and evacuate.

“The most effective time to catch and stop unwanted fire is right after it starts,” said Flannigan.

New satellite underway 

One exciting advancement in wildfire monitoring is the use of remotely sensed data from satellites. WildFireSat is a wildfire monitoring satellite in development by the Canadian Space Agency. The satellite will monitor the radiated power from wildfires to learn their characteristics and provide near real-time information to support wildland fire management and research, improved smoke and air quality forecasting; and emission measurements that are part of international requirements for carbon reporting. WildFireSat plans to monitor the entire country daily and deliver its data within 30 minutes.

AI predicts extreme weather events 

Researchers at the University of Alberta, alongside colleagues from the Canadian Forest Service and the University of Waterloo, are also hard at work applying machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) applications to help understand and predict wildfires. 

Flannigan and the team are developing several machine learning projects to aid with the challenges future fire activity may bring. For example, Flannigan’s lab most recently used self-organizing maps (a type of neural network) to predict extreme fire weather in Alberta using atmospheric pressure gradients. Work is ongoing to develop an automated fire weather prediction system that will aid in operational firefighting planning.

Changing our approach

In the past, wildfires have often been seen as something negative on the landscape. However, there is a growing recognition among researchers of the need to balance the negative aspects of fire with the ecological benefits. 

“While there is no single factor that has created the current wildfire environment, there is also no single solution that will solve the problem,” said Flannigan. “While improved fire science and having resources ready to battle fires in and around communities are essential, wildfires that burn in regions with fewer values will need to be left to burn.”

“The reality is, we cannot afford to fight fires in the wildlands at the cost of not having resources available to respond to fires that become imminent threats to societal values.”

The challenge, according to Flannigan, is identifying the threat of each fire and deciding where to put resources – decisions that are full of uncertainty.

“We have to learn to live with fire,” said Flannigan. “We must also work to reduce the risk to what we value most and accept the trade-offs this requires.

Wildfire facts 

Average annual number of wildfires in Canada: 8,000

  • Average annual number of hectares burned: 2.5 million (roughly the size of Nova Scotia)
  • Average annual Canadian wildlife management costs in millions of dollars: 800
  • Percentage of fires caused by human activity: 60 (lightning is the other major cause)

Q and A: Cannabis industry leaders to descend on Edmonton for conference

Cannabis seedlings in an Aurora Cannabis facility. RYAN REMIORZ / THE CANADIAN PRESS

On Wednesday, cannabis industry leaders will be descending on the Renaissance Edmonton Airport Hotel for the second WE Cann Conference to share insights into the cannabis industry right now and future growth opportunities.

The one-day conference co-hosted by The Cannalysts and Grant Thornton LLP features keynotes, panel discussions and networking opportunities with leaders from a variety of industries including agricultural, scientific, retail, and manufacturing.

Ian McDonald, a local industry expert from Grant Thornton LLP, discussed the upcoming conference and the future of the cannabis industry as the province continues to lead in growth and opportunity. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What are some of the talks expected to take place at the conference?

We’ve got three panels that will have industry experts on them. There are going to be a science panel talking about what’s going to be coming up in terms of cannabis hemp products, a retail panel and that’s close to all of us because of the issues associated with retail, and we also have an operational excellence panel talking about the challenges preparing for the new product platforms.

Q: What does hosting this conference in Edmonton mean for the province? 

It will validate what Alberta is doing because I think we will have industry leaders here who will be really impressed with the quality of Alberta-based businesses. The export potential is huge. I’ve heard of export arrangements with a number of European countries by Alberta-based business in the cannabis industry. 

Q: How would you describe Alberta’s cannabis industry?

It’s really exciting. In Alberta, we’ve hit hard times with our oil and gas industry being battered. This is a brand new opportunity and a brand new industry where Canada has the opportunity to be a world leader and Alberta is probably the province right out there in front because of our entrepreneurial spirit and we are people who like to get involved in business and create opportunity.

Q: Where do you see the most growth in the industry?

I see the most opportunity coming up when we have the second wave of legalization in the fall. We have clients who are preparing for it and studying for it. Right now, I think it might be in the ancillary industries. When you think of cannabis, you almost automatically think of the growing part of it, but I think a lot of the opportunity involves being part of the supply chain that’s supplying into the industry, whether it’s product or services.

Q: How can Alberta continue to lead? 

I think Albertans’ willingness to invest will keep us out front. We’re willing to try things, and I think we can stay out in front if we continue to invest, be innovative and open.

Originally posted on Edmonton Journal

Gene responsible for toxic metal accumulation in durum wheat identified

Researchers complete genome assembly of durum wheat, identify gene responsible for cadmium accumulation.

Heads of durum wheat. Research by UAlberta biologists has identified the gene responsible for cadmium accumulation in the crop, with potential applications for improving food safety. Photo courtesy of Neil Harris.

University of Alberta biologists identify gene responsible for cadmium accumulation in durum wheat, according to a new study published in Nature Genetics. For humans, consuming cadmium, a toxic metal that accumulates in grain crops, poses serious health risks, including cancer and kidney disease.

“The mechanism responsible for high cadmium accumulation in Canadian varieties of durum wheat has, until now, remained elusive,” said Neil Harris, researcher in the Department of Biological Sciences and co-author on the study. Canada is the world’s leading exporter of durum wheat, providing approximately 50 per cent of global durum exports.

Food safety

Cadmium, which naturally occurs in soil, is absorbed into plants through the roots. The gene—named TdHMA3-B1—produces a metal-transporting protein that stores cadmium in roots preventing its transport up to the shoots and grain. “Our work identified a mutation in TdHMA3-B1 that disrupts its function. Durum wheat varieties with the non-functional TdHMA3-B1 are unable to restrict cadmium transport to the grain,” said Harris.

“A genetic marker for the mutation is now being used to screen all Canadian durum breeding lines, enabling rapid development of low-cadmium durum wheats. As a result, all durum wheat varieties now released in Canada accumulate two to three-fold less cadmium in their grain, thereby increasing the quality and safety of pasta and couscous, the primary products derived from Canadian durum wheat.”

The identification of TdHMA3-B1 is one of many practical applications of how understanding the durum wheat genome can improve food security and safety. Others include improved yield, insect and disease resistance, and resilience to environmental stresses arising from climate change such as heat and drought.

The study was conducted in collaboration with Gregory Taylor, professor, and Kevin Liang, undergraduate student in the department. The paper, “Durum wheat genome highlights past domestication signatures and future improvement targets,” is published in Nature Genetics (doi: 10.1038/s41588-019-0381-3).

Originally posted on: University of Alberta’s blog – Folio

Artificial intelligence for mental health

The boundaries of artificial intelligence techniques are continually being advanced to improve our ability to interpret complex medical imaging results and diagnose diseases. And now, a new tool developed by University of Alberta researchers diagnoses schizophrenia from patient brain scans—a diagnosis that has historically relied on subjective data of patient experiences, rather than read from scans.

The study brought together campus expertise in two key areas: machine learning and psychiatry. Sunil Kalmady, lead author on the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta, explains the traditional difficulty in diagnosing the disease, and how machine learning was able to present a solution.

(From left) Computing scientists Russ Greiner and Sunil Kalmady worked with psychiatry professor Andrew Greenshaw to improve the accuracy of an AI-based diagnostic tool for schizophrenia. The program can predict with 87 per cent accuracy whether a patient has the illness by analyzing a brain scan. (Photo: Karim Ali)

“Schizophrenia is characterized by constellation of symptoms that might co-occur in patients. Two individuals with the same diagnosis might still present different symptoms,” said Kalmady. “This often leads to misdiagnosis. Machine learning, in this case, is able to drive an evidence-based approach that looks at thousands of features in a brain scan to lead to an optimal prediction.”

The result is EMPaSchiz (Ensemble algorithm with Multiple Parcellations for Schizophrenia prediction), a model that has been trained on scans from many patients diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Kalmady worked on the tool under the supervision of both Russ Greiner, professor in the Department of Computing Science, and Andrew Greenshaw, professor and associate chair in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry’sDepartment of Psychiatry.

“Machine learning provides a set of tools that can use that existing scan information to produce the classifier we want: a tool that, given a scan of a person’s brain, can predict whether that person has schizophrenia,” said Greiner. “Moreover, there are ways to estimate how accurate this tool will be and how often it will provide the correct diagnosis.”

When put to the test, EMPaSchiz was able to identify the disease in new scans with 87 per cent accuracy, outperforming existing AI models in identifying the disease.

EMPaSchiz is also one of the first machine learning tools trained exclusively on data from patients who aren’t yet undergoing drug treatment—which could make it more valuable in the early stages of diagnosing the illness.

Machine learning on the brain

Artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques hold particular promise for complex fields like that of mental health.

Some of the most reliable indicators the algorithm found are highlighted in this image, where red indicates elevated activity and blue indicates suppressed activity in the brain. Photo credit: Sunil Kalmady

“Mental health disorders are highly complex in terms of causes and manifestation of symptoms,” said Greenshaw. “Machine learning and future AI are approaches that enable a multi-dimensional, data-driven inroad that captures the level of complexity and objectivity that we need to unravel the wicked problems of understanding mental illness.”

EMPaSchiz also shows the potential of machine learning to develop accurate computing science tools to interpret a situation where there are many variables at work—a field in which Edmonton and the University of Alberta are leading players.

“Machine learning is a powerful and appropriate tool to use in situations like this,” explained Greiner. “Here, no one knows which combination of features will make the best predictor. And critically, there is already a database of training samples identified by skilled physicians. This has already lead to successful AI-driven systems by researchers around the world, including right here on campus and in our lab.”

The paper, “Towards artificial intelligence in mental health by improving schizophrenia prediction with multiple brain parcellation ensemble-learning,” was published in NPJ Schizophrenia (doi: 10.1038/s41537-018-0070-8).

Originally posted on: University of Alberta’s blog – Folio

Want to find out more about the artificial intelligence and machine learning research going on at the University of Alberta? Check out the Faculty of Science artificial intelligence hub to learn more.

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