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Leaving Future Energy Systems

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Future Energy Systems HQP (for now) Alex Hunt and Director (for now) Larry Kostiuk.

Future Energy Systems HQP (for now) Alex Hunt and Director (for now) Larry Kostiuk.

Director Larry Kostiuk and HQP Alex Hunt followed different paths from the Northwest Territories to Future Energy Systems. Now they’re both moving on.

Larry Kostiuk and Alex Hunt hail from the shores of Great Slave Lake –– Larry from the sand and muskeg of the south, Alex from the rockier north. Both are mechanical engineers, and both found their way from Canada’s Northwest Territories to the University of Alberta’s Future Energy Systems research initiative.

Their journeys are separated by decades, oceans, and borders, but they remain intrinsically linked in a variety of ways.

And this summer, they’re both leaving Future Energy Systems.

They burned down his town

Larry (centre) in the University of Alberta's Department of Mechanical Engineering in 1983.

Larry’s family had lived in the Northwest Territories since 1937, and in 1965 moved to Pine Point –– a town that had been built to last.

The community had all the trappings of southern towns –– paved streets, sidewalks, basements, and a sense that it was going to thrive forever. Unfortunately, its future was tied to the lead and zinc mine rooted between the town and the southern shore of Great Slave Lake –– a mine which found itself unprofitable when unleaded gasoline became the standard.

“The community couldn’t survive, so the buildings were sold off and everyone moved out,” Larry says. “Then they decided to burn down everything that was left. It’s kind of creepy: the place is gone but you can still find the street maps on Google.”

Larry moved away years before those torches were lit, but he returned twice a year for two decades because his family's construction business was based there. He’s not sure why the decision was taken to annihilate the town instead of just abandoning it, but whatever the motive, the lesson was stark: a change in energy technology (in that case, the additives in fuel) literally wiped out his childhood home.

It’s no surprise, then, that he often thinks about the true impact of changing energy systems on people’s lives.

Alberta was the destination when the Kostiuk family made their move, though even after Larry completed his engineering undergrad at the University of Calgary and his MSc at the University of Alberta, the north continued to draw him back. There were plenty of opportunities for an engineering grad to work in the family business, in the mining sector, or with the government.

“It was good work and there were definitely immediate financial benefits,” he explains.

“I also met my wife on one of those trips back –– we both had connections to Pine Point. Her dad was the high school principal,” he adds with a smile.

But Larry’s future lay elsewhere. His studies had whetted his appetite for engineering challenges, but in those days the University of Alberta’s mechanical engineering program had a third the number of professors and a sixth the number of graduate students compared to today, and large world-class programs like Future Energy Systems didn’t exist.

He looked abroad for his PhD, and ultimately decided to cross the Atlantic and attend Cambridge in the UK. After that it was the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, to work on a NASA project for which the experiments were done at the NASA Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center in Cuyahoga County outside Cleveland Ohio. When that wrapped up, he and his family returned to Edmonton.    

“We wanted our kids to grow up in Canada,” he says. “This was the right city for us.”

And when he returned to the University of Alberta after working in some of the finest engineering programs in the world, he brought along a variety of ideas.

A lot of options

Alex oversees an impromptu visit by a Helmholtz delegation.

The ashes of Pine Point had barely finished smouldering when Alex was born in Yellowknife. Life in the Northwest Territories’ biggest city was different than it had been in Larry’s optimistic but ill-fated mining town –– as a territorial capital, Yellowknife enjoyed more infrastructure than most other communities north of the 60th parallel. Alex’s graduating class from St. Patrick High School was over 50 strong, instead of just 5 or 6.

Good future job prospects surrounded the city –– members of his family had built meaningful careers with government and in the local extraction industries.

“You could work in the diamond mines or on government engineering projects. There are stipends and other financial benefits to staying, or to moving back after your degree,” he explains. “You can make a great life there, and many of my friends and family have.”

But Alex hasn’t, because like Larry he found himself searching for different problems to solve.

“I just didn’t see myself spending my whole career in a single sector,” he says. “Coming to the U of A gave me a lot of options.”

He’s not sure where he first got the idea to study engineering, though some of his mother’s family had gone that route. When he finished high school, he simply chose the University of Alberta because it was closest to home.

“It’s a long drive, but there are better flights now than there probably were when you were going back and forth,” he says to Larry, who chuckles.

“Yeah for a while bringing my kids back north to visit their grandmother was really expensive. We got good at doing 18 hours in the car to Fort Smith.”

They reminisce for a moment about that roadtrip –– where the outpost gas stations are, what ferries have since been replaced by bridges, and how far they could drive without seeing another sign of humanity. Without meaning to, they’re both illustrating the unique understanding they share about the energy challenges faced by Canadians living in remote areas, far removed from the electrical grids to the south.

That they both have spent the last year focused on different aspects of those challenges isn’t really a coincidence.

We could teach that

Dr. David Nobes with Larry at the Future Energy Systems Research Symposium.

Early in his teaching career with the University of Alberta’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, Larry was busy breaking down old barriers. First, he teamed up with a cadre of professors to pioneer a program for co-supervising students and sharing equipment.

“When I got to Cambridge, I discovered a world in which it wasn’t just one grad student working with each professor, but a lot of grad students interacting with a lot of professors,” he explains. “So in our group here we vowed to treat each other’s students as if they were our own.”

The administrators of the day weren’t convinced this was a good idea –– when it came to annual reviews and ultimately promotions, they worried it would be difficult to understand which professors were truly responsible for what successes.

Those worries proved baseless, and after some years Larry actually became one of the administrators. During his decade as department chair he pursued new ideas, including a number rooted in the notion that engineers –– whose job is to create solutions in the real world –– should have more opportunities to advance their communication skills, and study disciplines that involve human behavior, like sociology and psychology.

“I’m reliably informed that in the real world you may have to interact with humans,” he laughs. “Maybe we could teach that.”

Not all his efforts met with success –– disciplines that have been separate for centuries don’t easily let down their walls. But he wasn’t alone in pushing this pragmatic view, and during his tenure more and more real-world-focused academics joined his department. Among them was Dr. David Nobes, an ex-footballer from Australia who was an expert with optical measurements.

With so many unconventional thinkers coming together, the Mechanical Engineering department that Alex walked into was worlds apart from the one Larry left behind when he went to Cambridge.

“I didn’t have a frame of reference, so I didn’t realize I was lucky,” Alex says. “Now that I’ve been here a while, I get it.”

Larry taught one of Alex’s third year courses, but for the most part the two northerners didn’t cross paths –– until the government of Canada arrived with $75 million.

Traveling pitch man

Larry addresses the crowd at the Future Energy Systems Open House.

Larry was one of the authors of the proposal that secured the support of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund to launch Future Energy Systems.

The timing had worked out: after a decade he’d stepped down as department chair and taken up an appointment as Associate Vice-President (Research). In that role he worked on the proposal, celebrated the announcement of funding, then set about building a program that could meaningfully impact energy systems research.

Both his expertise and his life experience made him the right person to understand what technologies were on the table, and what societal implications needed attention. After all, simply removing lead from gasoline –– just tweaking an established energy system to better protect the environment –– had led to the burning down of his hometown. He knew that transitioning to new technologies like renewables could have massive consequences for people everywhere.

The design for Future Energy Systems thus became rooted in two central principles. First, the program had to be multidisciplinary, breaking down some of the barriers that had proved unassailable during his time as department chair. Second, instead of being preoccupied with new buildings or expensive equipment, its priority had to be training people who could keep working on these questions long after the program’s end.

Armed with these ideals, Larry made himself synonymous with Future Energy Systems on the University of Alberta campus.

“I was a traveling pitch man, wandering between faculties and administrative bodies with an ever-evolving PowerPoint,” he jokes.

His slides laid out the complexity of energy systems change and invited teams to come together to pitch projects. On the back of this tour, he struck a research advisory committee that spanned numerous disciplines, and that group ultimately identified fourteen themes and worked with researchers to create project work plans. At the same time, he pulled together an executive team, plucking experienced people from other university research initiatives so that, within just a year they could launch 69 projects involving eight faculties and campuses.

“When you say it like that, it sounds like we actually did work,” he laughs. “But that’s all done now, so our job is to let students do their work.”

Larry wants at least 1,000 ‘highly qualified personnel’ (a funding agency term for students and trainees, typically shortened to ‘HQP’) to move through Future Energy Systems before the program wraps up in 2023.

Alex is one of them.

Building from scratch

Alex disassembles an ultra-low temperature Stirling engine.

A career in academia wasn’t ever part of Alex’s plan. When he finished his undergraduate degree he kept his eye out for a job, though he also wasn’t going to rush into something.

“I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into one industry,” he says. “There are great jobs in the petroleum and mining sectors, and I could do those at home. But I enjoy mechanical design –– building things from scratch to do things that weren’t possible before.”

Pursuing his manufacturing-focused MSc at the university seemed a good way to enhance those skills, so he stayed with the faculty and continued to develop his expertise with programs like SOLIDWORKS, an industry-standard CAD platform used for product design. As he finished up his graduate work, that experience was part of the reason David Nobes approached him.

“I’d never worked on Stirling engines, but I understood the fundamentals of designing something from scratch and moving it towards the marketplace,” Alex says. “Dr. Nobes offered me the chance to do all that with a real technology.”

Nobes’ team of students (meet some of them here) was designing and building Stirling engines that could harness geothermal energy from ultra-low temperature sources. The plan was to seek funding from NSERC, but when Future Energy Systems came calling for renewable energy projects, the fit was obvious.

The potential benefits of decentralized power generation resonated with Alex. For anyone who had lived through an 18-hour drive home, filling up at every gas station because it was the last one for hours, and passing the turnoff to a town that had burned to the ground because gas went unleaded, an engine that could generate free electricity from heat held a lot of appeal.

“These engines aren’t ready to power remote communities yet,” Alex speaks of the work. “But we’re gathering data and building models that get us a lot closer to commercialization. One day, we could replace a lot of diesel generators.”

Hired onto the project as a Research Engineer, Alex helped organize Nobes’ graduate students while also working with them to get the first generation engines running. Overseeing the entire R&D process for a new engine technology was a unique addition to his resume, and he believes it helped him secure a job in the manufacturing and product development industry.

“My application was picked out of a pile,” he says. “I have to believe that some of these unique experiences contributed to that.”

Alex leaves Future Energy Systems to join Volant Products next week.  

Interestingly, Larry will leave the program just a few weeks later.

The outside world’s gain

Larry with Future Energy Systems Executive Director Stefan Scherer.

Graduate students are generally supposed to get jobs and leave campus –– that’s usually the point. Academics, however, are supposed to stay with their programs until the bitter end. Larry apparently missed that email (or ignored it) because he’s now decided to tackle another age-old institutional division: the barrier of understanding between universities and government.

“I’m always asking people in government why they do particular things, and they say ‘it’s complicated’. When I ask them to explain it to me, they say ‘it’ll take too long’,” he laughs. “Then they ask why universities do certain things, and why we can’t do other things, and I realize that we really are in different worlds with a limited understanding of the other.”

Bridging that gap and finding pathways for collaboration will be his next objective. Leaving his Associate Vice-President (Research) appointment and the Directorship of Future Energy Systems, he’ll be on Administrative Leave with the Government of Alberta beginning in August.

“People talk about wanting to make evidence-based policy,” he says. “To do that, I assume you need people who understand evidence, and people who understand policy. Hopefully by working together for a while, we can learn enough about each other’s processes to build a new kind of pathway that improves on what we’ve had in the past.”

He makes no grand promises about this Leave –– he simply plans to apply the same interdisciplinary ethos that has guided his career to date, and which ultimately launched Future Energy Systems.

And from his perspective, Future Energy Systems is ready for him to go. The program’s executive team is stocked with skilled evangelists for interdisciplinarity, and more than 110 researchers are already working hard to apply that principle in real labs. Even better: with more than 300 HQP already at work, it seems likely the target of 1,000 trainees will be surpassed long before 2023.

Larry will remain a part of the research group, serving as Principal Investigator on one CCUS project, but the administrative reins will soon turn over to a new Director.

“I won’t spoil the announcement, but I will say the next person won’t be an engineer,” he smiles. “I guess by quitting I get to prove how serious we are about interdisciplinarity and sustainability.”

Then he realizes this story about two more mechanical engineers will come on the heels of another one featuring mechanical engineers (ironically, one about David Nobes’ team which Alex helped oversee).

Back-to-back engineering content probably contradicts the interdisciplinary principle, so Larry chuckles, “I guess we messed up the sequence by leaving.”

He did, but that’s fine –– there will be many more stories about Future Energy Systems researchers from the faculties of Arts, ALES, Business, Law, Native Studies, Science, and Campus Saint-Jean. His vision now has a life of its own, and more importantly its principles are being carried into the real world by the program’s alumni –– including him.

Looking to his younger counterpart, Larry grins, “So we both quit. Now we have to change the world.”

Alex replies: “Let’s start by not burning down someone’s town.”

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