Water specialist keeps well-trained students flowing to industry

UAlberta expert combines research into speeding up tailings pond remediation with teaching a new generation of water researchers.

(Edmonton) If it turns out that the wars of the future will be fought over fresh water, Canada might not necessarily be the battleground that Canadians presumptuously think it is.

"We think in Canada we have lots of water, but some parts of Canada-including parts of southern Alberta-are experiencing drought conditions," said Mohamed Gamal El-Din, an environmental engineering researcher and a 2013-14 Killam Annual Professorship recipient. "It's critical that we are careful how we use our water, and when we use it, how we bring it back to the receiving environment in a safe manner."

Gamal El-Din has gained a level of acclaim for his innovations into how water and waste water are made safe, particularly in the area of tailings pond remediation.

His area of expertise has taken centre stage recently with word that oilsands giant Syncrude is starting down the path of reclaiming the first of Alberta's 77 square kilometres of tailings ponds. "They are going to see what comes out of current best practices in five years' time, but my feeling is it will require additional treatment-it looks like Mother Nature needs more time."

Gamal El-Din says if left long enough, perhaps a century, tailings ponds should attenuate naturally, but adds industry doesn't have that sort of time horizon, especially with concerns over the ever-increasing volumes being held.

To accelerate the natural remediation process at work, Gamal El-Din, who in 2011 was awarded the NSERC Senior Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Tailings Water Treatment, has provided important advancements, particularly in the application of ozone treatment and different absorbents that span all possible water problems.

"My lab looks at many different options because our aim is to eventually have treatments for different scenarios; not all treatment processes will apply to all the different scenarios," he said.

When Gamal El-Din began as a PhD student in the late 1990s, his interests rested in municipal and industrial waste water treatment, with the latter focusing on pulp mill or animal manure treatment plants. It wasn't long before the water specialist-in-waiting took an interest in oilsands process water, getting in on the ground floor of the School of Mining and Petroleum Engineering's burgeoning Environmental Engineering and Science Program.

"From his appointment as assistant professor immediately following conferral of his doctorate in 2001 to promotion as professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering seven years later, the Environmental Engineering Program has grown significantly alongside Mohamed," wrote department chair Roger Cheng in support of Gamal El-Din's Killam Annual Professorship. "The two are interwoven and have both matured with distinction to become renowned and respected."

His lab's successes, although groundbreaking, are exceeded by his willingness to collaborate across disciplines and his excitement about training the next generation of water protectors.

In the dozen years he's been at the university, Gamal El-Din has supervised more than 100 students at every level of their education, including 51 master's students, 19 PhDs and 16 post-doctoral fellows. At any given time, his labs house a mixture of more than 30 students, technologists and research associates.

"When students leave here as practising environmental engineers, they are going to be working on a host of problems, so we might as well bring them up to speed about what the problems are that they will be facing," he said.

With a full lab and robust research interests, it is hard to imagine Gamal El-Din would have time for anything else, yet he is affiliated with more than a dozen professional groups and journals, is active on national and international committees, and has a commitment to volunteerism that is unsurpassed. Gamal El-Din exports his expertise to rural communities in his native Egypt and places like Bolivia, to help ensure the sustainability of the world's drinking-water supply systems and the safety of sanitary systems.

Gamal El-Din is also an active member within the Faculty of Engineering and has supported the Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology (WISEST) program by supervising high-school students interested in the discipline.

He is also one of the six team leads in the U of A-led Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative and has heavy involvement in the U of A Water Initiative, as a steering committee member and a major campus collaborator.

"To research water you have to use a multidisciplinary approach that ranges from engineering and the different sciences, to disciplines like public health and economics," he said. "The university has an excellent research climate and a lot of expertise in a wide range of areas to connect with and create some nice collaborations."

March 17-22 is UAlberta Water Week, a campus celebration of water leading up to UN World Water Day. The theme of this year's events is "Exploring Sustainable Practices for Water and Energy." Events are free and open to the public.