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Thursday, June 16, 2022

Canadian Academy of Engineering: A personal saga

This week the Canadian Academy of Engineering announced its list of new Fellows, and yours truly was included. 

Needless to say I am humbled and honoured. It has been a long and tortuous path to this point, and nothing along the way pointed to this level of recognition. 

I obtained got my first real job, as an apprentice mechanic at the local Mercedes Benz dealership, in the spring of 1975. (I passed on a lovely 250 SE sedan while there, still regretting that decision). By about 1978 I was employed by a small independent shop focused on British cars, and by extension Swedish cars (they used British carburettors). I got to know the local oddball scene: among the customer's cars were a Ginetta G15, a TVR Grantura Mark 2A, an early Dellow, and a raft of Jags, Healeys, MGs and Triumphs. (While there I picked up a Rover 2000 TC in British Racing Green with the Rostyle wheels, no regrets there except for the rust that eventually killed it). The shop also serviced German cars (as the Swedish cars had German electrical and fuel injection systems) and basically anything else that rolled in the door. I finally got around to getting my Auto Mechanic's certificate (2nd class) in 1982.

By 1984, I was married and a father. The mechanic's work was fun but the pay poor; and after 10 years it was time to move on. As well we were starting to see onboard diagnostic systems, and I was worried the computer would make the fun part of the job (figuring out what was causing that odd set of symptoms) obsolete, leaving only the wrenching. So with my wife finishing up her degree in social work, it was my turn to go back to school. 

McGill Engineering was not impressed by my lack of scholastic credentials and refused to even entertain my application, so in 1984 I went across town to Concordia for a year of pre-engineering math and science courses. Straight A's here encouraged McGill to reconsider my application, and I started in Mechanical Engineering in the fall of 1985, at age 30. 

Summer jobs in the next few years included a return to the garage and a stint in a garment factory; but getting a summer job over in Chemical Engineering assisting J.-F. Bond, a graduate student with Murray Douglas and Ron Crotogino, proved to be a smart career move. After spending two summers helping J.-F. get his equipment built and running, in 1989 I got the B.Eng. diploma and went to work as a graduate student myself, with Ron as my main technical supervisor. Along the way this Master's project got turned into a PhD project. My second child was born along in there as well. I managed to defend the thesis in late 1994 and start work at Paprican as a research engineer before hitting 40. 

At Paprican I worked on a variety of energy efficiency projects, some successful (the Energy Monograph and subsequent efficiency studies), some less so (I was instrumental in killing off the Szego mill). The thought that pulp mills also make heat and power led to the thought that maybe they could make other things; and while byproducts such as lignin, methanol or turpentine were well known, there was room to expand this, especially where the end product could be used to displace a petroleum-based competitor. The Biorefinery program was the result, in about 2005; this led to the LignoForce system installed at West Fraser's Hinton pulp mill and a few other success stories.

I had the pleasure in this period of working with a great group of people, from lab technicians and pilot plant operators to research scientists and engineers, and on to mill operators, process engineers, equipment designers and manufacturers. I learned that innovation requires a huge range of skills and viewpoints, not to mention cash, to be successful. So cheers and thanks to the supporting cast of characters, without whom I would not be writing this; you know who you are.

Throughout that time, I remained convinced that fuels should only be made from the residues for which no better use could be found; products too close to the barrel of crude are too dependent on the price of that crude, and can't be economically displaced by wood-based materials unless the barrel is consistently well above $100. Products further down the value chain from the raw barrel, such as phenolic resins, are less sensitive to the price of oil; and it is possible for lignin to compete in plywood resins as long as oil is above about $40. Some products are potentially profitable even if the oil were essentially free, although care must be taken to understand how total market volume tends to shrink as you move into specialty chemicals. 

But the new climate change imperative and government reaction to it means that the playing field for fuels may well be levelled by a combination of policy moves which serve to generate an "effective oil price" against which wood-based fuel products can indeed compete. Such policy actions include carbon taxes or financial support for early-stage plants, and serve to recognise the fact that the costs of burning fossil fuels, in terms of fires, floods and heat waves, are not included in the price at the pumps. Of course this requires governments to actually act on their newfound understanding... 

So the Academy has now inducted a former British car mechanic... it will be interesting to see how that plays out, for me as well as for the Academy. Stay tuned!

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