Watching our waste: new monitoring systems to protect our planet

Posted on October 07, 2020

The number and variety of items that fill our landfills continues to grow as technology evolves and we demand newer and better products. From Teflon cooking utensils and fire-resistant fabrics to incorrectly discarded electronics and crack-resistant paints, we are building a precarious mix of toxic elements in our landfills. A group of Queen’s Engineering researchers have been developing geosynthetic liner technologies to keep that waste from damaging our planet – and now, they’re developing monitoring systems to track their performance.

This black geomembrane liner gets hot even when it is partially covered in snow.

Civil Engineering researchers Drs. Fady Abdelaal, Kerry Rowe, and Richard Brachman recently received funding from the Queen’s Wicked Ideas competition to build on their existing work examining landfill design and mining waste containments in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. “Through our latest NSERC strategic grant we are working on adapting geosynthetic technologies for waste containment in the Arctic, but we need to ensure that these liners continue to perform over time,” says Dr. Abdelaal. “Monitoring systems will help us detect any failure of the system before it has an impact on the environment.”

The monitoring systems will provide warnings of any excessive stress or aging that may cause a liner to fail and release toxic waste into the environment. It will also help researchers continue to improve upon geosynthetic liner design.

Climate change has made the work even more important. The rise in temperatures, especially in the north, can cause waste to thaw, producing an unpredictable new state and increasing the risk of soil contamination. Permafrost, ground that remains frozen, is also thawing, leading to ground movement and shifting of landfills.

These monitoring systems can also be implemented to safely extract precious mineral resources during mining operations, which often use chemical solutions during the extraction process. Devices will be able to quickly detect any chemicals that get past barrier systems before damage occurs.

“The development of monitoring systems will help us understand changes to barrier and liner systems over time, which leads to overall design improvement,” says Dr. Abdelaal. “We have a responsibility to create systems like these to protect our environment and create a cleaner future for our planet.”

Environmental Test Site (Godfrey, ON)

Queen’s Environmental Liner Test Site (Godfrey, ON) that will be used for part of the Wicked Ideas research.