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uOttawa’s Design Day: Where engineering students help turn dirt into gold

Design day engineering students gather at uOttawa
Design day engineering students gather at uOttawa

Back in 1997, Marie Josée Lamothe didn’t know her newly founded environmental consulting company would one day discover how to turn dirt into gold.

Northex Environnement Inc. started off advising clients on how to clean up and recycle contaminated soil, however Lamothe eventually realized her company’s expert advice wasn’t enough to overcome the real-life disincentives to following best practices – many companies citing cost as the reason behind burying, incinerating or dumping the contaminated soil in a landfill. 

Lamothe chose to see the problem as a business opportunity, given that impacted materials remain a natural resource. What if Northex could turn contaminated soil into a commercially viable raw material that was safe to use? With contaminated soil amounting to over 30 per cent of all landfill waste, the potential for a positive environmental impact was huge. Lamothe and the Northex team dove into research and development and found the solution. But to make it commercially viable, they needed some help. 

Enter the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Engineering. Through various undergraduate and graduate programs – as well as the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Engineering Design – the post-secondary institution regularly partners with industry to solve real-world business challenges, pairing students with local companies to help innovate new products and ideas. 

When Martin Pothier, the current director of scientific advancement at Northex and a University of Ottawa grad, saw his former thesis advisor become the faculty’s vice-dean of strategic development, Pothier saw the potential for a partnership. 

“Partnering with the University of Ottawa was the perfect opportunity to make the next stage of Northex’s business development a success,” said Pothier. “Our dream is to eliminate the cost-barrier facing our clients for treating contaminated waste.”

Right now, Northex’s bottom line relies on charging clients for waste treatment. The company wants to change their business model to the sale of their recycled products so they can reduce costs for their clients.

“To realize this dream, we needed to collaborate with the University of Ottawa on research and development. Together we can solve a massive ecological challenge and benefit future generations,” said Pothier.

Innovation at the heart of design 

Northex needed two things from the university: scientific research and the imagination of its students. The scientific evidence would guide their intellectual property development and the students could figure out what to do with it. A class of civil engineering students was tasked by Northex to create a product made from the company’s concrete recipe using a $100 budget. It had to be simple, versatile, and commercially viable. 

The stand-out design came from the team of Ryan Alexander, Souheib Isman, Binta Kenza, Syndjely Kourouma and Makhtar Diagne. They created a concrete block that can be configured with other blocks (like lego) to make a park bench, a planter or maybe a park bench with a planter. Simplicity + versatility = commercial viability.

Winning design of a concrete park bench

At the outset, the team discovered that finding a simple solution can be a little complicated, but their hard work eventually paid off. Several prototypes in, they discovered high density polyethylene (more commonly known as puck board) was the best option for the mold. Then they secured the materials with glue in some places and screws in others to ensure the finished product had a smooth surface. 

Their efforts won the students a top spot at the faculty’s bi-annual Design Day, a highly anticipated event where students present their designs to local industry judges with the chance to earn bragging rights and an ‘A’ in the class. Alexander enjoyed having a project that kept the team engaged during a year of online learning and the satisfaction of knowing their design may be used in real life.

For Northex, that block represents what can be accomplished when innovative companies partner with researchers and their students. 

“Students today represent a generation that is fully engaged in sustainability issues and have the freedom to think outside the box,” says Pothier. “Much like staging a house, their product proposal will be used to demonstrate the possibilities of what can be achieved with impacted materials to future clients.”

If your company would like to propose a project for the next Design Day, please visit the Faculty of Engineering’s Partnerships page and get in touch.