Beneath our feet lies a huge network of pipes. Pipes that carry, water, waste and services to and from our homes. The city couldn’t run without this invisible network, but we only give it a thought when the City needs to dig up roads and sidewalks to make repairs.
Thousand kilometers of pipelines must be replaced each year. Each of these repairs is expensive and potentially disruptive, but unavoidable. Pipes start to suffer from corrosion after only 5-6 years, most of it damage caused by bacteria in the wastewater, which produce sulfuric acid. To make things worse the bi-products of this can leech into the ground, contaminating soil.
A PhD student in Civil Engineering, Negar Roghanian is interested in developing new materials that can be built into pipes and other structures to extend their lifespan.
“I trained in Iran as a structural engineer before moving to Singapore to work on a project with Singapore University. It was there that I started to find an interest in greener, more environmentally friendly materials.”
Concrete pipes start to suffer from corrosion after only 5-6 years, most caused by bacteria in the wastewater, which produce sulfuric acid
Negar moved to Vancouver to pursue this interest by studying for a PhD with the SIERA (Sustainable InfrastructurE ReseArch) Laboratory under the supervision of Prof. Nemy Banthia. A world leading group interested in improving and developing materials used in construction to make them more sustainable and durable. Her research led to the development of a new coating material for pipes. This was part of her academic research and it was only by chance that Negar began to explore the commercial uses of her discovery.
“I’ve always been an academic first and I’d thought about this as an academic project, but I agreed to do a profile for the Commerce journal about my project and businesses who’d read the piece began to contact me to ask about the commercial applications of this.”
“It was a bit of a shock at first, I hadn’t thought of myself in a business setting, but I was encouraged by my supervisor Prof. Nemy Banthia to approach the team at entrepreneurship@UBC to see what the potential might be.”
Entrepreneurship@UBC is the Unversity’s venture accelerator, providing programs, space and mentorship to get startups up and running.
She admits to being a little suspicious at first, but that soon dissipated “There were workshops and advisors who helped prepare you to use your knowledge, find the application for your idea and make a connection”.
Negar also found the ability to make connections with other budding entrepreneurs on campus particularly helpful. “In the forums organised by entrepreneurship@UBC there were more that 25 other academics meeting with advisors. Only a few were from Engineering, the rest came from all over campus. It was reassuring to meet people in a similar position to me, trying to work out the commercial possibilities of their research.”
The team helped guide Negar through setting up a start-up and the long process of patenting the material, a patent that was received last month.
Negar also recognises that getting this far would not have been possible without her supervisor.
“He was so, so, supportive in this. He was supportive of my needs as a new parent and just as helpful when it came time to start trying to find commercial applications for my research. It was through him that I was able to access funding and facilities through IC-IMPACT to conduct large scale testing and model waste water pipelines”
Now with the patent secured it’s time to move onto the next phase of turning this pipe dream into a reality
“Now we’re talking to several companies to understand their needs and to get some pilot projects up and running. In the future the material could be used to form pipes or other structures but at the moment we’re looking at projects where it can be used for repair and extending the life of existing piping networks.”
If its successful maybe those traffic jams caused by roadworks to repair sewers and mains will be a less common part of daily life in our cities.