Wicked problem solving — How the successes (and failures) of applied research are solving global challenges

city skyline that has a heat filter

On the “wicked” scale (think extreme, complex, interconnected, profound), the problem of ensuring long-term viability of life on planet Earth is a 10 out of 10.

Securing our future will undoubtedly require collaborative, innovative solutions involving industry, funding partners and researchers. As industry continuously develops new products, tools and processes to address global wants and needs — and with environmental sustainability in high demand from consumers — SAIT’s Green Building Technologies (GBT) applied research team is wicked busy.

Part of SAIT’s Applied Research and Innovation Services department, the team is monitoring sustainable innovations and analyzing their impact on real buildings, in real time, with all of the nuances of occupants and climate thrown in the mix.

It’s a vital role — and different from foundational research, which expands our body of knowledge with big-picture principles, laws and theories that establish an understanding of how things work overall in the natural world. In contrast, applied research is decidedly purpose-driven. It applies scientific theories, laws and principles to confront very specific, real-world problems head-on, looking to gain meaningful insight and generate practical solutions.

Getting charged up for thermal energy

thermal image of shower head“Right now, we’re working with Scout Energy Solutions and Home Completions Inc. to do some cold-climate testing on a thermal energy battery,” says Tyler Willson (Business Intelligence ’15, Information Technology ’14), the project’s principal investigator.

The battery, developed by Sunamp in Scotland, captures and stores waste thermal energy that’s generated in the process of powering a home, a building or appliances like hot water tanks.

“In a hot water tank, for example, the by-product of combustion is heat,” says Willson, explaining that the tank’s pilot light is constantly firing up to keep water hot.

But the battery being tested by the GBT team uses a patented phase change material (PCM) to store excess thermal energy, then releases it when the material goes through a phase change — from a liquid state to a solid — producing hot water on demand.

“This phase change process results in a higher energy density, requiring less physical space.”

Willson says the battery has real potential to eliminate the need for domestic hot water tanks; maybe even provide an alternative source of heat for indoor spaces.

“With proof of concept already well established in Europe, and hopes to begin installing the product locally, the immediate challenge for our clients is to ensure their thermal energy battery can perform as intended in our colder climate,” he says.

“The water supply coming into homes here can be very cold. Colder water requires more battery power [latent energy] to heat up, so our primary goal is to see how this battery realistically performs in our colder temperatures.”

Testing performance in a hostile climate is not exactly a “wicked problem” in and of itself, but Willson is quick to point out how the results of his team’s functional testing are helping to address a much bigger issue.

“The wicked problem in front of us is how do we mitigate the energy crisis that’s coming our way — especially here in Alberta?” he says. “We have all this infrastructure in place to heat our homes, but when gas shoots up in price and electricity shoots up in price, people are going to be scrambling. What are we going to use when we transition away from gas towards a higher-cost grid over time?”

Renewable energy may be the way of the future, but at the moment, practical alternatives to our historical energy sources are limited. Solar panels alone just don’t have the capacity to capture, let alone store enough photovoltaic energy to keep all our homes warm when the thermometer outside dips to -40°C for consecutive days — or weeks.

So Willson and his team are exploring how thermal battery design — which factors in operational variables like outdoor temperatures — make it a great complement to a micro-Combined Heat and Power (mCHP) system. With four pipes for water input/output and a resistance coil for optional electric heat, an mCHP is an active device that could charge a thermal battery by transferring excess heat — and could also be turned on and off as required.

“There’s no limit to what you can charge this battery with. It doesn’t care where the water or electricity is coming from,” says Willson. “So, if we can use the battery and mCHP together in a smart way, to shut on or off our gas or electric appliances as costs fluctuate, we can ensure we’re using as much renewable energy as possible. We can save a lot of energy.”

While his team’s research is not yet complete, the prospects for this thermal battery are encouraging. That’s not always the case with these applied research projects. When results fall short of expectations, the insights gained from the failure — the lessons learned — could well prove key to solving other problems down the road. Even an applied research project that fails can ultimately lead to success.

Leaning into lessons learned

Thermal image of a living wall in an interior space

Back in 2012, Dean Jones was lead investigator on an applied research project focusing on living walls. At that time, his research involved testing the viability of using the root system of a vertical indoor garden (hydroponics) to filter rainwater — something that could help address the wicked problem of water conservation.

Regulations around the use of non-potable water indoors presented insurmountable roadblocks in that study, but the living wall itself — installed in the Green Building Technologies Lab and Demonstration Centre, a 6,350-square-foot research facility that opened on SAIT’s main campus in 2017 — became an ongoing test site for indoor plant matter and growth.

When COVID struck and public health measures moved some 1,340 SAIT staff to working from home, the wall did not survive.

“Hydroponic living walls are water based,” says Jones. “Since there is no growing medium or soil, they require continual water input, meaning they require ongoing maintenance — something we weren’t able to provide during lockdown.”

Instead of walking away from the research, Jones and his team brought back in their original research partner, Vertical Oxygen, for some brainstorming. “We discussed trying something that was lower maintenance; something that would require less water, less pruning,” he says.

They landed on a plan to grow a moss wall.

Beyond its natural environmental capacity for air purification, sound attenuation and temperature regulation, the soft, mottled green vertical surface of a wall covered with moss would greatly enhance the interior aesthetic.

“Our primary goal this time was to look at this particular project from the health and wellness perspective,” says Jones. “Bringing nature into our built environment can be really good for mental health.” And that’s another wicked problem well worth addressing.

Unfortunately, the moss wall had to be decommissioned when it did not grow as intended — even sprouting mold in several areas.

“We tried to keep it going for a number of months, adapting and tweaking the water pump system as part of our learning process, but eventually we needed to call it,” Jones says — because sometimes future success can depend on knowing when to accept defeat and move on. “We’ll continue to look into other options for the living wall system and apply what we’ve learned moving forward.”

Applied research has tremendous potential to impact society, the environment and industry.

Industry spurs innovation, while funding partners like the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Alberta Innovates make the research itself possible.

This is about working together to solve some of the world’s most wicked problems, one at a time. Collaboration, adaptability and perseverance constitute a winning combination.