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NAIT Undertaking First-Of-Its-Kind Microplastics Research

Edmonton North Saskatchewan River

By Zachary Flynn

A team of researchers at NAIT are looking to set global standards in freshwater microplastic tracking. They are measuring microplastic levels in the North Saskatchewan River for the first time ever.

Dr. Paolo Mussone, the chair of applied bio/nanotechnology industrial research at NAIT, is the lead scientist of the project.

“We now have a standard operating document and procedure that is designed so that in principle, anybody trained in basic chemistry can apply the method,” said Mussone.

While Mussone says there has been a wealth of research done in microplastics in saltwater systems like oceans, there has been very little work done in freshwater systems like rivers and lakes.

“On a really high level, it’s a combination of applying chemistry principles and physical principles,” said Mussone.

“There are steps that involve filtration and there are steps that involve the careful control of the density of the liquids that are added to the matrix.”

The research is the product of the Plastics Research In Action (PRIA) partnership between Inter Pipeline Ltd. and NAIT. PRIA comprises a number of research projects centred around minimizing plastic pollution.

Mussone’s goals are to create and refine a system that measures microplastic levels in these freshwater ecosystems, collecting data from the Edmonton area and logging microplastic levels along the North Saskatchewan River, which has never been done before.

“It’s very important that we get to a point soon enough where we have a system of collecting and extracting microplastics that is the same across jurisdictions so they can be compared,” said Mussone.

Inter Pipeline is currently working towards building North America’s first integrated propane dehydrogenation & polypropylene complex which will turn locally-sourced propane into polypropylene plastic to be used in manufacturing.

The company is working towards meeting targets set by the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, looking to convert 100% of packaging plastics to recyclable or recoverable by 2030 and 100% of packaging plastics being reused, recycled or recovered by 2040.

“I do see a dramatic ramp-up to meet those goals, but it is a very important goal for the industry,” said Dan Morrison, a sustainability advisor with Inter Pipeline.

Currently, Canada only recycles nine per cent of its plastic waste.

“Plastics are difficult in that there are many different types of plastic. It’s not just that you take one type of plastic and you have one single recycling technology for it. You have to separate and segregate them,” said Morrison.

“It would be nice if we had a magic bullet where we were just able to take all plastics, put them in one factory and get resins… but no,” said Morrison.

“They have to be cleaned, taken apart, segregated into the types of plastics and then physically shredded.”

A second NAIT applied research team is currently exploring the use of plastic waste in other products, initially focussing on asphalt used in roadways.

The $80 million Productivity and Innovation Centre (PIC) is being used to carry out research projects like that of Dr. Paolo Mussone’s at NAIT.

The new centre allows for more accurate testing, student work-experience opportunities, and larger research partnership like this one which will bring in $10 million in funding over 10 years.

“I’ve been in this game for long enough to say that [PIC] is a very special thing to have on a campus. Having an area with labs that are maintained at a standard for this type of research is quite special in our region,” said Mussone.

The new centre and the research projects it attracts give opportunities for NAIT students to be involved in applied research.

“We’ve emphasized student participation in the project. It’s not student participation just to have student participation, but right from the start, it’s been designed to make sure that individuals that are associated with and participating in these projects truly have skills that are transferable into the marketplace,” said Mussone.

“It’s adding a hands-on, applied, industrially-relevant component to the fantastic training that [students] already acquire going through their programs at NAIT.”

After collecting 144 samples over a shortened research period this summer, Dr. Mussone and his team will spend the winter months refining their extraction and measurement processes before they begin to measure the samples they currently have stored.

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