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Tuesday, 15 December 2015 09:58

Message from President Sylvio Tessier

sylvioOK, I got it, BioE programs are not quite like old Agricultural Engineering…

In January of this year, Beijing’s mayor announced that his city was no longer “livable” on account of the air pollution levels that take a daily toll on its 21.5 million inhabitants.  Today (November 30, 2015), never mind odours or visibility, airborne particulates reached 976 µgm-3, whereas the safe level is… 25 µgm-3­

My better half and I just returned from a business trip in China’s Inner Mongolia, where I presented some tips for the design of no-till corn planters, at No-Till & Conservation Tillage Workshop hosted by a local manufacturer, and chaired by Professor Li Hongwen, director of the National Soil Conservation Centre, housed in the College of Engineering of the China Agricultural University in Beijing.   We also spent a couple days in Beijing, and we didn’t see the sun shine for very long…

But let me get to the point.  What is the link between the different streams of Engineering and the air quality problem in Beijing.  Anyone?  Let see what the Chinese government did for the 2008 Olympics.  In order to lower airborne particulate, the Central Government ordered that all manufacturing, construction sites, spray painting in all of China by July 20 of that year, while petrochemical production was suspended until September.  The halt to China’s economic engine cost the country billions, and all that was achieved was a temporary respite for the Olympics…  What [government of] China wants, China gets, always… 

BeijingThe link is….  Biosystems Engineering.  For one, BioE training of today has provided young BioE professionals engineers with a unique tool box, where we can invariably find some environment management and protection skills, some biomedical skills, some food or fibre  engineering tools, and a few others depending on the program.  But also, you’ll find a more or less faint touch of agricultural production, as like it or not, your professors can’t deny that many of their favorite teaching examples are squarely anchored in today’s agricultural production practices. 

China’s air pollution is complex.  Back in 1996, the first time I visited Beijing, I was amazed by two sights: sand blowing in the streets, and a sight as if the entire countryside was burning.  Sand, I was told was blown from Inner Mongolia, some 500 km away.  When we flew from Beijing to Harbin in late September, in China’s northeast, I thought winter had set in the mountain range between Beijing and Inner Mongolia – not at all, the “white stuff” was windblown sand.  As for the fires, they were everywhere on the return trip to Beijing at night. 

So, what’s a BioE professional engineer to do with all of this? For one, being able to measure and monitor the problem, airborne particulates, and characterize them is half of the battle.  Then, you’d quickly document how much of the pollutant fall in the PM10 (particles less than 10 µm in diameter) category.  Wind erosion is a major source of PM10 particulates, as is burning of crop residues.  Crop residues, and corn stover in particular, is a traditional fuel for heating and cooking in most of China’s countryside where high residue crops are grown.  With a general increase in standard of living, rural inhabitants of China can buy coal or other alternate fuel.  China’s central government has banned the use of crop residues as fuel for cooking or heating, and burning of crop residues is now prohibited.  What China wants, China gets…  In the country side, inhabitants translate as: When China wants blue sky in Beijing, China will have blue sky in Beijing.  It was interesting to note, all the same, that corn residue stover were neatly piled in bundles about the right side for anyone to grab and carry on one’s shoulder or throw on a truck or wagon, most likely by night fall.  Now, that’s a challenge for BioE professional engineers with environment protection in mind – how to help rural inhabitant transition to leaving residues where they grow, and document how good this is for them, not just Beijing’s residents.

Now that they can’t burn residues or presumably take them off the fields, farmers have to deal with them.  Again, this is where you, young BioE, with some inclination for watching plants from a seed to seed setting stage, come in to play.  Once your classmate has identified the origin of significant proportions of PM10, you can tackle the conservation tillage challenge.  And it will keep one more generation of young BioE professionals busy at this challenge.  The reality is that while there are many conservation tillage seeding equipment manufacturers out there, not one of these equipment perform adequately in all conditions…  Moreover, it takes a farmer very mechanically inclined to machinery tinkering to make them work properly and at their best.  Mother nature has saved more than one crop that was not covered or sown deep enough.  For row crops such as corn, the availability of equipment is far scarcer, as farmers developed a niche market for small manufacturer of “row cleaners”…  As Gene Logsdon suggested in his article “No-till” is a Big White Lie (Google that, you’ll find it soon enough!), for many corn growers in US and Canada, no-tillage is more often that otherwise an exercise in finding a way to use the good old 1970’s style seed row units, with pretty much the same 1970’s style double disc opener, and the same old double closing wheels.   Row cleaners, strip tillage, vertical tillage, what have you, so long the old planter still works. 

However, “residues” hit the fan in China rather quickly…  For one, whereas until recently corn was grown in rows between 750 mm to nearly 1 m apart, well “conventional” spacing in China is moving toward 600 mm.  In the North East, all corn is grown on ridge-till, with rows 450 mm apart.  Hum, hum, there’s no place left to move the residues, as Professor Li Hongwen indicated when I mentioned row cleaners…  Now, during my time in Inner Mongolia, all proud of the no-till planter I had designed, tested at home, cleaned and shipped to the manufacturer for whom I contracted with, I was asked to change the row spacing to 450 mm… No sweat, I thought.  Had tinkered with that all summer, after all.  First strike, the ratchet set they brought had become a one-way ratchet: good only to unscrew, I had to bag it on the floor to do one “screwing” movement.  Then I was offered a couple worn-out crescent wrenches, which came loose at every turn.   Not a full set of open ended fixed wrenches.  If it’s like this at the manufacture, I can’t imagine how crafty clients may be.  Whatever I design, it better be simple and fool proof!

So, here I am, after years of watching seedlings emerged, counting them and digging them out just to make sure, BioE P.Eng. trying to do my bit for Beijing’s Blue Sky.  We’ll be back there again to test a pilot build of my no-till planter in early spring.  Anyone wanting to do a graduate degree in BioE in China?  Contact me and we’ll set you up with profs in China.  I am 100% certain that whatever coursework you have taken in anyone of our BioE or BioE affiliate programs across Canada, that you will understand what I am trying to do and you’ll eventually do it better than me.  In doing so, you will contribute to the engineering knowledge on no-till corn planters. 

See, it’s easy, once you know enough to appreciate a problem, you can either develop your specialization, or recruit and lead specialists to work on that problem.  This is what Biosystems Engineering is about, not just about Biomedical one day, biomedical forever…  Hummm, I did hire a biomedical stream graduate to design seeding and tillage equipment, didn’t I?  Last I heard, he was still hard at it.  Don’t go with the flow; go where your heart leads you.  And don’t you be hung up on program title, Biosystems Engineering, Biological Engineering, Genie Biologique et Agroalimentaire, we all talk the same [engineering] language, work well together, do great things together, and all have our heart in the same place.

P.S.: if ever  my mail box gets loaded with applicant, I might just dispatch them left and right in China…  

Read 2021 times Last modified on Tuesday, 15 December 2015 11:06
Sylvio Tessier

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