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October 11, 2001 Care of environment overdue



Maria Elektorowicz

Maria Elektorowicz has updated electrokinetics by adding microbial processes to facilitate the removal of petroleum pollutants from clay.

by Barbara Black

Environmental engineer Maria Elektorowicz wants to see much higher priority given to the principle of sustainable development.

While it is at the core of the undergraduate courses she teaches in the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering, she doesn’t see it reflected in other departments of the university. One of the worst offenders, she said in a wide-ranging interview, is computer science.

“What about this?” she demanded, tapping the monitor of her office computer. “It’s not biodegradable, and it will be replaced with another monitor soon. What’s Bill Gates doing about that?”

Apple deserves a “green ticket,” she said, for causing pollution. Why not change the chips within the old system, instead of introducing an entirely new system? The guts of the computer contain heavy metals, causing isotropic changes in the soil when they are thrown out.

Life-cycle approach

We lack an overarching view of the life cycle of materials, Elektorowicz said. Instead of simply looking at the cost of producing a product or a service, we should be taking into account its entire “life” — from the cost of extracting the raw materials, transporting them, producing the product and using it to the cost of throwing it away, including its long-term effect on the environment.

Better information on sustainable development would enable mechanical engineers to design better engines by applying the concept of “exergy” instead of energy, she said. Methanol, produced from methane, a natural gas generated by the transformation of waste, is as efficient as gasoline as a fuel, and much less harmful to the environment.

To take another example, Elektorowicz is struck by the extent to which we Canadians take water for granted. She deeply believes that the lack of water and other natural resources lies at the root of many of the political conflicts in the world today.

“Research on new sources of energy can change the world,” Elektorowicz said. “As scientists, we are able to think in a non-conventional way. New sources of alternative energy, new sources of transformed water, genetically modified crops in semi-arid zones can all fulfill basic needs, and generate hope and peace in areas now filled with conflict.”

Research hampered by lack of funds

Her feeling is that Concordia is well placed to help out the “global village,” and should promote pure science on its own. She and her colleagues have many ideas for fundamental research which she feels are being hampered by narrowly specific demands from the granting agencies.

“Multiculturalism at Concordia is an extraordinary advantage that can guide us into new areas of scientific development. Do we really need to wait for a green light from the granting agencies?
“Believe me, Einstein couldn’t get a grant from NSERC.”

Her own research focuses on the development of processes for the remediation of contaminated soil, groundwater, sediments and sludge–processes. She is applying a new twist on a method used to clear some European marshes early in the 20th century, in which an electrical field was created over a field.

She has discovered that by combining microbial processes with electrokinetics, she can remove petroleum pollutants from clay. She also has proven that the process works on petroleum mixed with heavy metals, a contaminant mixture which has been considered impossible to clean up.

In addition to her position at Concordia, Elektorowicz is chair of the Environmental Engineering Division of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering (CSCE) and president of RESOL, the inter-university network of researchers on contaminated soil.

Thanks to Dawn Wiseman, from whose article in the quarterly magazine of the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science the information about Professor Elektorowicz’s research was drawn.