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February 2013

Fighting fires before they start

Trillions of dollars every year are spent, worldwide, constructing the next biggest, tallest and most innovative buildings. But what is the purpose of building such massive structures if they can be destroyed with a single lit match?

Parsons Brinckerhoff Halsall Inc, a consulting engineering firm in Toronto that specializes in vertical building construction, recognized this incredible risk to its clients and reached out to the Mitacs-Accelerate program to find the expertise it needed to resolve it.  “Not a lot of people in structural engineering actually devote their careers to fire research,” reported Michael Buckley, Vice President at Halsall, which is why he jumped on the opportunity to engage with a graduate student at Queen’s University through Mitacs-Accelerate.

The program connected Halsall with Greg Shier, a master’s student from Queen’s department of Civil Engineering, giving them access to his specialized knowledge.  Greg’s graduate research focuses on the materials used in building construction – specifically beams in high-rise buildings – and how various curing processes can significantly improve their structural integrity when faced with high temperatures, like a massive fire.

The purpose of Greg’s project with Halsall was to take his specialized knowledge of fire engineering, and present it in a form that Halsall could easily implement into their portfolio.  During his internship, Greg developed a method of ranking building materials in terms of fire resistance and assembled pricing data on these materials.  Ultimately, he compiled this and other relevant research into a comprehensive report that Halsall can now use to communicate exactly how they can offer safer and more economical building services than any of their competitors.

Receiving exposure to the industry environment allowed Greg to see where his vastly theoretical research can really make a difference.  “Through Mitacs-Accelerate, I received the opportunity to work on the R&D side of a company, finishing a project that may not have otherwise been completed.”  Greg is currently completing his Master’s thesis, which is now significantly more comprehensive, given the breadth and concrete examples he discovered during his internship with Halsall.

Dr. Mark Green, Greg’s academic supervisor at Queen’s, said it was a pleasure to witness Greg’s improvement over the course of his internship, as well as the improvement of other students he has mentored through Mitacs-Accelerate.  “These internships help students to understand the process of industry, improve their communication skills and give them the perspective they need to see the practical applications of their research.  These skills make them better researchers, and will also make them better employees in their industry down the road.”

Mitacs thanks Industry Canada, the Networks of Centres of Excellence’s IRDI Program and the Government of Ontario for their support of Mitacs-Accelerate in Ontario.