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MTO’s million-dollar infrastructure innovation fund promotes research

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Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) has a million dollars to give away for innovative ideas. All you have to do is pitch one.

The MTO Highway Infrastructure Innovation Funding Program (HIIFP) awards research grants each year to a select number of a scientists and researchers at Ontario’s 22 public universities and 24 colleges to push the envelope around transportation infrastructure.

The program requires the principal researcher be a faculty member — full or part time — at the institution applying.

It’s designed not only to improve Ontario’s highways and bridges and make road building and maintenance more efficient and sustainable, but also to encourage undergraduate and graduate research in transportation and infrastructure related engineering.

The MTO solicits research proposals delving into infrastructure solutions in traffic operations, intelligent transportation systems, engineering materials, investment planning, highway design, environmental, geomatics, bridges, construction and maintenance.

In 2016 some 28 projects were funded, but that changes every year depending on how many applications are submitted and how many get the greenlight to go forward, says Dino Bagnariol, director of the MTO’s Highway Standards Branch.

It’s expected another slate of projects will be funded when the next cycle begins in April this year.

"What’s important about this funding for research is that it’s applied research,"

Dr. Medhat Shehata

Ryerson University’s Department of Civil Engineering

The HIIFP also supports multi-year projects that require annual funding.

It has been running since 2003 and this year’s priority list includes:

An experimental analysis of road salt and winter sand applications for highway maintenance, noting the best practices in this area were last updated a decade ago;

protecting source water from road salt using bio remediation technology on a large scale starting with a laboratory scale model;

the evaluation of innovative performance measures for winter highway maintenance, with the note that Ontario’s auditor general identified a lack of performance standards for winter highway maintenance, specifically the time taken to clear snow from roads during storms;

looking at climate severity factors and what the standards are for contractors in terms of the amount and types of equipment in relation to a Winter Severity Index;

dealing with packed snow on highways;

various measures to protect endangered wildlife around highways, such as barn swallows and how to best stop the spread of invasive species such as Phragmites which are spreading along highways, crowding out native species and damaging pavement;

they also want to see if dogs can be trained to sniff out Blanding’s Turtle eggs before shoulder or adjacent road work begins. Previous efforts were inconclusive;

the addition of additives in pavement rehabilitation using in-place recycled pavement. There is a concern the current practice of using portland cement can cause cracking and construction joint opening;

research into sensors to be deployed along highways to monitor CO2 and nitrogen emissions to evaluate future highways and the impact of Connected Automated Vehicles and other greenhouse gas mitigation;

using sensors to estimate pavement damage from heavy vehicles; and

a solar roadway demonstration project using a thin photovoltaic film to generate electricity to power the existing road infrastructure such as lights and signs or feedback into the grid. The MTO has identified a site at a commuter parking lot at Highway 404 and Major Mackenzie Road. The project would run for up to three years.

Also up for grabs are financial management systems and electronic toll collection systems for High Occupancy Toll lanes as well as enforcement technology.

In all there are some 29 priority projects that are awaiting proposals. The proposals are reviewed by the MTO’s team of experts and the most promising are put forward for final review and selection.

"We may not get proposals on every topic," says Bagnariol. "And those proposals we get sometimes don’t hit the mark. We suggest they submit the following year with changes."

Researchers are also welcome to put forward proposals that aren’t on the priority list as long as they are relevant to highway infrastructure. In return for the funding, the MTO gets a non-exclusive, royalty-free licence without charge to use and to assign to contractors for work on Ontario’s roads regardless of whether the researchers obtain a patent.

As such the HIIFP is a boon to researchers like Dr. Mohamed Lachemi, now president of Ryerson University and colleague Dr. Medhat Shehata, P.Eng, professor and associate chair of undergraduate studies in Ryerson University’s Department of Civil Engineering in Toronto. Shehata worked with student Maryam Kolahdoozan in 2013 on an MTO project.

They were funded by the HIIFP and produced a paper, Studies on the Fresh Properties and Durability of Unshrinkable Fill Containing Recyled Concrete Aggregate (RCA) or Natural Aggregates of Marginal Quality.

Shehata’s research has explored the issue of sustainability in aggregates, looking at incorporating low or marginal quality materials such as RCA and aggregate with high sulphate content, in unshrinkable-fill mixtures.

The challenge has been in water dissipation and the length of time it takes to harden. Sulphate levels also cause issues with quality.

His research tested several mixes and additives to mitigate the sulphates and to create a better cure time. It also seeks to better use an otherwise stranded resource in more effective and sustainable ways.

"What’s important about this funding for research is that it’s applied research," he says. "These are real problems. Students get me as an academic and technical advisor but they also get to work with the MTO engineers who are very qualified people too. That’s the industrial experience they get and it’s very important. The students take the lead but they have support from all sides."

Shehata also found that the key issue is that not all RCA is the same and so a one-size-fits -all formula doesn’t apply.

"However, the designer can look at the quality of their RCA and use the guidelines we have to create more sustainable fill," he says.

The paper noted the optimum mix is about 55 per cent coarse RCA and 45 per cent concrete sand but that it would vary according to the type of RCA.

Shehata, whose students have received "five or six or so" HIIFP grants into aggregate research, says its also important that the students themselves start to look at engineering challenges from a sustainable point of view, seeing RCA, for example, not as waste but as an underutilized resource.

"In this way they are preparing for their lives as engineers, with this approach into sustainability integrated into their thinking when they graduate," he says.

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