Canadian Consulting Engineer

building a future

October 1, 2000
By Said Easa, Ph.D., P.Eng

bout 600 people from 15 countries gathered in London, Ontario in June for the annual conference of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering (CSCE). The three-day event included over 60 workshops to ...

bout 600 people from 15 countries gathered in London, Ontario in June for the annual conference of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering (CSCE). The three-day event included over 60 workshops to discuss important advances in tackling civil engineering challenges. There were four parallel specialty streams: environmental, structural, transportation, and general.

“Building Canada for the third millennium,” was the conference theme. One of the most intriguing sessions that took this futuristic approach was in the transportation stream.

The workshop on capsular and pneumatic pipeline systems led by Henry Liu, director of the Capsule Pipeline Research Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia, looked at some exciting potential new uses and adaptations of an old technology.

Pneumatic pipeline systems (transporting uncontained solids through pipelines using air or another gas as the carrier) have been used for two centuries for transporting cement powder, grain, flyash, and other materials, and recently for domestic solid waste. Disney World in Florida, for example, uses a pneumatic system to collect trash deposited at various disposal points. A potential application of these systems is the transport of household refuse. “Some Japanese and European cities already have such systems in modern apartment complexes,” said Liu.

Capsule pipelines transport solid freight in capsules that may be vehicles, containers, or log-shaped solid objects moving through a circular pipeline. The capsule is propelled by either a gas (pneumatic capsule pipeline or PCP), or a liquid (hydraulic capsule pipeline or HCP).

Traditionally, pneumatic capsule pipeline has been used for the short-distance transport of mail, parcels, and other relatively light objects. In the future, however, we may see the technology applied in large systems for interstate freight transport, and where it will be used to move general cargo. The cargo would be moved in rectangular ducts or conduits instead of circular pipes to aid the loading of boxes, pallets, and crates.

Henry Liu, explained that the systems will also use linear induction motors not only for pumping, but also for capsule injection, ejection, acceleration, braking, and control. “It will be a highly electro-pneumatic system,” he said. Hydraulic capsule pipeline, a relatively new concept, uses watertight containers. Unlike the pneumatic version, hydraulic capsule containers do not require wheels because they are suspended by both the buoyancy of the liquid in the pipe and a hydrodynamic lift force. Before such systems can be smoothly used for commercial applications, however, the design and handling of capsules must be carefully studied.

Extensive use of pipeline systems will aid freight movement and reduce the number of trucks on highways, thus improving mobility, safety, and the environment. “It is easy to see and predict that capsular pipelines will blossom forth in the 21st century in the form of utilities,” said another presenter, Peter Weaver, president of Toronto-based Pneutrans Systems. “With 21st century technology, capsular pipelines will do things and go places not dreamed of today,” he added.

Another highlight of the conference involved air in a different context. One of the tours of facilities in London was of the famous University of Western Ontario’s Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel laboratory. This lab, founded by Dr. Alan Davenport, P.Eng. investigates and tests the effects of wind on structures and urban environments. About two-thirds of the world’s 40 tallest buildings have been studied at the UWO lab. Examples include the CN tower in Toronto, the World Trade Center in New York City, the Sears building in Chicago, and the 3.3-km span Messina straits crossing in Italy.

The laboratory has two main testing facilities. The first, BLWT I built in 1965 is an open return tunnel 33 metres long. The second, BLWT II, a state-of-the-art, versatile facility opened in 1984, occupies 1,170 square metres and has parallel high-speed and low-speed testing sections. The high-speed section includes a 52-metre long wind/wave tank that can be converted to a dry testing section by covering it with a suspended floor.

The high-speed section of BLWT II has a maximum wind speed of 100 kilometres per hour. A model of the tested structure and its surroundings is placed in the tunnel and the wind is sucked through. On the floor of the tunnel are computer controlled “roughness” elements that are configured to buffet the air and simulate natural winds.

An image problem

Before the conference, chairs and heads of civil engineering departments from universities across Canada met at their annual forum to exchange ideas on issues of mutual concern. One issue was how to attract more and “good” students. It was noted that enrolment in civil engineering during 1995-97 declined by 26% and the number of graduate degrees awarded decreased by 17%, according to a report by the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers. The situation has not reversed itself. The decline was attributed, in part, to the prevailing market conditions, particularly starting salaries and the perceived unemployment rate. Those present felt that another important factor influencing this decline appears to be a perception of civil engineering as a “low-tech” profession.

The profession has an image problem, and the major challenge is to change it. The group believed that the best strategy is to promote civil engineering to students before they enter the university. This strategy should be accomplished at the national level in cooperation with the professional organizations, consulting engineers associations, and industry. “To improve this image, we need to change the education system and the profession, and to seize opportunities to capture new/emerging technologies to advance civil engineering,” said Mumtaz Usmen, chair of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University, who was a guest speaker at the forum.

We also looked at another critical issue for the future of civil engineering. Hans Vaziri, P.Eng., chair of civil engineering at Dalhousie University, noted that emerging growth areas like biotechnology, materials, advanced communications, and information technology require civil engineers to “think outside the box.” These areas are having a profound impact on civil engineering. For example, computers and communications technologies are an integral part of intelligent transportation systems. Satellite global positioning systems are being used for precise measurement and real-time control in many applications. It is also conceivable that genetically engineered microorganisms will be used in the near future to manufacture high-strength building materials. Photonics, lasers, and fibre optics will replace metallic wiring, and computers will be pervasive throughout the built environment.

We agreed that there was a great need for changes in the undergraduate education of civil engineers to reflect the changes going on in the industry. Indeed, the participants believed there is a need for creating a transformation in the civil engineering profession.

CSCE 2000 is over, but the communication of new ideas to advance civil engineering will continue at the next CSCE conference, to be held in Victoria, B.C., from May 30-June 2, 2001.CCE

Said Easa, P.Eng., is professor and chair of civil engineering at Ryerson Polytechnic University, Toronto. He was chair of the CSCE transportation specialty conference and secretary of the chairs/heads forum discussed above.


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