ARCHIVED - NRC Celebrates Alberta's Century of Success

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September 05, 2005— Ottawa, Ontario

Alberta Flag
Alberta Flag

Alberta is feeling rather festive this year. The beautiful western Canadian province is marking its centennial year in 2005 after splitting from the Northwest Territories and joining Canadian Confederation on September 1, 1905.

Over the years, the National Research Council has carried out many interesting projects in Alberta. From finding ways to improve the quality of beef shipments and food storage, to exploring extremely small devices, NRC has also played an important role in Alberta's economy and knowledge base. Today, NRC continues to fulfill this role through biodiagnostic facilities, a nanotechnology institute, and programs that help local companies succeed.

NRC proudly celebrates its past and present connections to Alberta which are filled with great projects, great people, and a great future ahead.

Great projects

Project Habbakuk

Imagine a massive aircraft carrier... made of ice. In the midst of the Second World War, NRC teamed up with the British government in a secret project to test this off-the-wall idea. The concept was to use reinforced ice to cheaply construct ships that would be virtually unsinkable and relatively resistant to attack. Essentially, they were constructing an iceberg-ship. Amid great secrecy and excitement, British and Canadian engineers set to work creating the unique vessel.

NRC acting president at the time, C.J. Mackenzie, took on the Canadian portion of the little-publicized project named "Habbakuk" (a misspelling of the biblical name Habakkuk, intended to convey the ambitious nature of the project). While the idea originated in England, Canadians were responsible for testing the feasibility and usefulness of using ice as a ship-building material.

Western Canadian testing sites were chosen based on weather conditions and an ample supply of the chilly construction material in question. The ambitious collaboration included the British government and scientists; the national parks of Jasper and Banff; the universities of Alberta and Saskatchewan; and NRC staff in the west and in Ottawa.

NRC scientists rushed to complete their research before winter's end in 1943. They performed large-scale tests including experimenting with a slab cut from the ice cover of Lake Louise. They also looked at internal refrigeration systems and a new material called pykrete – ice strengthened with 4-14% wood pulp.

Ultimately their gamble didn't pay off: Project Habbakuk was cancelled by the UK in 1944 for technical and economic reasons. By that time, floating airfields were no longer a priority and the project was deemed too labour intensive. While the ice ship itself never fully materialized, important research that remains usefull to this day was conducted about the properties of ice and the development of pykrete.

Protecting and Improving Resource

Oil and beef are essential parts of Alberta's booming economy, and over the years, NRC has helped Alberta capitalize on its agricultural and petrochemical resources.


It can be a long way from the cattle farms of Alberta to our dinner tables. In the 1960s, western beef producers faced a slimy problem when transporting their products to eastern provinces. During the four to six days it took to ship cattle carcasses cross-country, cold-resistant bacteria developed and grew on the beef, creating a smelly and unpleasant slime on the meat. Meat transporters like Canadian Pacific Railway were understandably concerned and turned to NRC for help. After testing bacterial growth in different conditions, NRC Drs. C.P. Lentz and D.S. Clark determined that meat stored in air comprised of 20% carbon dioxide during transportation resulted in better preservation and prevented growth of the nasty bacteria in question, vastly improving beef shipping methods.

More recently, the NRC Institute for Biological Sciences (NRC-IBS) has worked on developing a natural antibody that may eliminate a strain of E.coli in the digestive tracts of cattle. By incorporating a plant-made antibody into cattle feed, they hope it will surround an E.coli strain and prevent it from attaching to the lining of the cow's stomach, thus preventing the bacteria's growth. In light of global experiences with animal virus outbreaks like Mad Cow disease that affect food supply and quality, E.coli research could go a long way in improving the safety of one of Alberta's main exports and the global food supply in general.

Oil Sands

NRC has long been involved in innovating and improving technology for Alberta's rich oil sands. In the 1960s and 1970s, NRC's Division of Chemistry developed and successfully licensed a method for extracting oil from tar sands by causing unwanted substances to bond into globules for easier removal. In the early 1990s, NRC identified the sludge-forming components of oil sand tailings which allowed for the waste reduction during oil sands extraction. NRC has also licensed membrane technology that has been applied to use oil more efficiently.

More recently, the NRC Biotechnology Research Institute (NRC-BRI) has worked with oil companies to develop processes for removing organosulfur compounds from bitumen. As well, the NRC Institute for Chemical Process and Environmental Technology (NRC-ICPET) has studied the relationship between the fuel composition and emissions in the hopes of reducing the emissions of diesel fuel coming from oil sands.

Today, NRC is involved in many aspects of the Alberta oil industry and has done everything from designing spray nozzles that break bitumen down into lighter oil, to studying its chemistry in order to improve extraction rates and reduce energy consumption. Oil sands is a major area of focus for NRC-ICPET.

Great people

Some of NRC's great researchers and leaders have ties to Alberta. Among them are the following distinguished figures:


Henry Marshall Tory Bertram Brockhouse Dr. Raymond Lemieux


Arrow HENRY MARSHALL TORY was a key figure in the founding of the National Research Council. During the years he served as Chairman of NRC (1923) and NRC's first full-time president (1928-1935) he laid the organization's foundation. In addition, he helped establish the University of Alberta and served as its first president. Tory was also a founder of the Alberta Research Council (which at one time received funding from NRC for natural gas research).

Arrow BERTRAM BROCKHOUSE was born in Alberta in 1918. After spending some time in the military and getting an education in both British Columbia and Ontario, he joined the Atomic Energy Project at NRC's Chalk River Facility (in Ontario) where he studied neutron scattering. His work led him to share a 1994 Nobel Prize for Physics with Clifford Shull in 1994 for separately, but simultaneously developing of neutron-scattering technologies. Brockhouse was also recognized for developing of neutron spectroscopy and his research in condensed matter.

Arrow DR. RAYMOND LEMIEUX was born in the province and educated at the University of Alberta. He later moved to Saskatchewan where he joined NRC's Prairie Regional Laboratory (now called the NRC Plant Biotechnology Institute). His greatest achievement was becoming the first person to synthesize sucrose, an achievement that laid the groundwork for much of the medical research that would follow him. In 2005, NRC-PBI was declared a national historic chemical landmark in recognition of Dr. Lemieux's legacy.

Arrow The famous Canadarm program was funded by Government of Canada and led by NRC which had contracted a group of Canadian companies to complete the project. Three of the NRC engineers involved with the project – DR. GARRY LINDBERG (project manager), A. HENRY (HARRY) HALL, and DR. LLOYD PINKEY – were graduates of the University of Alberta.

Great future

Arrow Today, NRC has a stronger presence in Alberta with efforts focused on several research areas. Scientists at the NRC Institute for Biodiagnostics West (NRC-IBD West) in Calgary collaborate with clinicians to improve the diagnosis of and therapy for brain disorders by introducing newly developed techniques and devices. The proximity of the NRC-IBD West offices to a clinical setting benefits Canadians by accelerating the translation of scientific discoveries into health care. In Alberta, NRC-IBD's research expertise and resources consist of optical imaging techniques and world-class magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology in the Experimental Imaging Centre, a unique partnership between the NRC and the University of Calgary housed in the Foothills Medical Complex.

NRC-IBD has also been active in Alberta through two of its spin-off companies: IMRIS provided a first in the world intra-operative MRI system for monitoring brain surgery to the Foothills Hospital; and Rover is involved in the application of MRI for veterinary purposes.

Stimulated by its location in the heart of the Canadian oil and gas industry, NRC-IBD West scientists are applying their expertise to develop an economical method of measuring the water content in oil using magnetic resonance technology.

Heading North to Edmonton, NRC-IBD has also collaborated with the Cross Cancer Institute on MRI applications for early tumour diagnosis.

Arrow NRC is also an integral part of Alberta's booming nanotechnology cluster. At the NRC National Institute for Nanotechnology (NRC-NINT) – a partnership between NRC, the University of Alberta and the Province of Alberta – scientists are performing revolutionary nanotechnology research that spans several scientific disciplines. NINT scientists come from physics, chemistry, engineering, biology, informatics, pharmacy and medicine backgrounds. The focus of their research is the integration of nano-scale devices and materials into complex nanosystems. Nanotechnology is still a young science, but Alberta's nanotech cluster is thriving.

Arrow Meanwhile the NRC Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP) helps build small and medium-sized Canadian companies by providing access to technical assistance and advances, expertise, facilities and resources. NRC-IRAP Industrial Technology Advisors work in Edmonton to help companies such as ViRexx, SciMed, Ceramic Protection Corp., Kudu, Extreme Engineering and Enviro Energy, develop and meet their goals.

Arrow In Alberta, NRC collaborates with Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD), industry associations and Western Canadian universities, on initiatives to increase the capabilities of Canadian SMEs, to support community innovation and to help promote the use of technology to achieve greater economic and social benefits.

Happy centennial Alberta! Here's to continued success through great R&D projects, great people and great opportunities.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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