Energetic Education

Dr. Ian Gates, BSc (Eng)’90, PhD, on what puts UCalgary on the leading edge of global energy solutions


So much worldwide discussion and discovery pivots on “global energy challenges.” Can you put a fine point on what those are?
Well, it’s a whole set of challenges. One is that, with the population surging, energy demand is growing. The other side of that is that we must have clean energy. So the challenge is: how do we produce clean energy and/or manage clean energy such that we can evolve over the next few years to the ultimate energy source that may be fully renewable? The other part of this challenge is that we must do this in the context of making sense economically, financially; it has to make commercial sense. We have a growing society, and we can’t pay for incredibly expensive energy that bankrupts us.

You lead UCalgary’s Global Research Initiative in Sustainable Low Carbon Unconventional Resources. What does this initiative aim to accomplish, and what’s unique about what you and your team are doing?   

The GRI team aims to discover solutions to make clean energy from unconventional resources and develop technologies for carbon dioxide conversion. The thing about the GRI is that it gives us the critical mass and the freedom to attack these challenges with the goal of getting them done. This initiative gives us the resources to allow teams of researchers to use their complimentary skill sets to really dig in.

A lot of our measure of success is in the translation of our research into something that improves society — that benefits industry, government and community. The question is always: “How will we all benefit from this work? What is the end use of its adoption?” That might be commercial or not, but the thing is that we want to see that we are creating change and moving the dial with respect to clean extraction and utilization.

In a global context, where or how is Calgary, and UCalgary, positioned to lead in solving these problems?

The way we do things here in Alberta is different — particularly relating to unconventional resources. We see the adoption around the world of innovations and techniques that were developed here. The GRI has made its home here because, globally speaking, it’s the perfect place to not only conduct the research we’re doing, but to then move forward and jump-start and empower the next 20 to 50 years of innovation.

We’ve got the science and the engineering perspectives, but we also have the trainees in all of these leading companies. Calgary isn’t just technically excellent, but we’ve got the entrepreneurial mindset and the creativity to come up with solutions. This is one of the most unique places on the planet. We’re in the right place and the timing is good — the recent struggles around the environment and the price of oil is propelling us to come up with lasting solutions. We’re building a critical mass of action that will change how we do things in the future.

Calgary isn’t just technically excellent, but we’ve got the entrepreneurial mindset and the creativity to come up with solutions.

Dr. Ian Gates, BSc (Eng)’90, PhD

How does UCalgary approach the question of energy transition?

Energy transition is an interesting term. When you think transition, some people assume it’s a transition from fossil fuel to renewables — but I don’t know about that. The real transition is within the petroleum space or fossil-fuel space. We still need heavy oil and diesel and jet fuel. I see transitions within that world — I see the emergence of ideas and balance.

There isn’t one answer. We need it all; humanity can’t operate the way it does and abandon one entire part of it, or at least not easily. We’re living in an exciting time with respect to how energy has come to the forefront of the agenda. We’re evolving, and we’re getting better at it.

What is UCalgary doing in terms of investing in new student experiences that will develop energy innovation leaders?

When I was a grad student, we never thought about innovation or building new ventures or creating spin-off companies. We wrote a thesis, we got a job, and that was it. Now, I look at my grad students and — wow! There’s huge energy around being able to create new solutions to old and new problems. They are thinking differently — thinking entrepreneurially. There’s a surge in innovation and it’s all about how we can connect the business world to the tech world; get mentors in to help grow a company and enable science students to get business experience.

This integration of science, engineering and business is essential to economic diversification in Alberta. Not “no energy,” but, rather, new products. These kids are just amazing, aspirational and inspirational in what they’re doing. At the GRI, we do a lot of workshops on technology development and entrepreneurial thinking, commercialization competitions, etc. It’s early days and I suspect that, over the next five to 10 years, we’ll really see the value back to society. I love what’s happening right now.