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It’s raining junk: Weather service dumping balloons and e-waste across the landscape

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Environment Canada has for years encouraged Canadians to reuse, recycle and reduce, but its weather service routinely dumps electronic waste — including batteries — across the landscape, making no efforts to recover the material.

Every day, 62 weather balloons carrying battery-powered circuit boards burst at high altitudes and drop their loads to the ground, discarded and forgotten.

That works out to 22,630 dumps of ‘e-waste’ each year, distributed widely, with each balloon carrying either six AA alkaline batteries or two potentially toxic lithium-ion batteries.

The Meteorological Service of Canada, which runs the program, launches the balloons to gather vital weather data from the upper atmosphere. It shares that data with many other countries that also release their own balloons carrying these instrument packages, called radiosondes.

A radiosonde package, to be carried aloft by a weather balloon. In Canada, these packages are almost never recovered after they fall back to Earth, (ingeniumcanada.org)

The electronic devices monitor high-altitude weather conditions, such as temperature, humidity and air pressure, and transmit the results by radio to 31 ground stations as far afield as Eureka, Nunavut, and Sable Island, N.S. The newest versions weigh about 100 grams each.

But unlike the United States, which attempts to recover and re-use some of these devices, Canada simply leaves the balloons and their radiosondes wherever they happen to fall — which is often in remote and pristine wilderness areas and in waterways.

“They should at least try to recover as much as they can,” said Vancouver-based Amit Kumar, who is writing his PhD thesis at the University of British Columbia on the fate of electronic waste in Canada.

“The U.S. is also a big country. If it can be done in the U.S., it can be done in Canada. As an organization, they [Environment Canada] should have a responsibility for recycling.”

Too costly?

But a spokesperson for Environment Canada said recovering the delicate circuit boards would sharply drive up the cost of the $17-million-per-year Upper Air Observation program.

“Even if this simple concept was feasible, it would not work in a large area without local populations or road access, as it would be prohibitively expensive,” Gabrielle Lamontagne said in an email, saying the abandoned e-waste is the price of obtaining accurate forecasts.

“The environmental and safety benefits of high-quality forecasts are significant.”

The twice-a-day launches from 31 stations use helium- or hydrogen-filled balloons made of biodegradable, natural latex, which the department says will disappear harmlessly over time after the burst remains fall back to Earth.

Environment Canada is gradually replacing its inventory of heavier, AA-battery-powered Finnish radiosondes with lighter, lithium-battery-powered radiosondes made in Germany, at a current cost of between $100 and $130 each.

… if it can be done in the U.S., it can be done in Canada– E-waste specialist Amit Kumar on Environment Canada’s policy of discarding electronic weather packages 

An information sticker on each device asks the finder to contact Environment Canada, but the department receives only a few calls each year, said spokesperson Samantha Bayard.

She added that the department has only rarely paid compensation for damage caused by a radiosonde falling back to Earth, but did not provide details.

Toxic mercury has been eliminated from the batteries, and the AA alkalines are considered relatively benign. Lithium-ion batteries, however, often are toxic and can pose a fire hazard.

“The batteries do pose some environmental risk,” said Bayard. “However, the data obtained [from the radiosondes] has great importance both globally and to Canada.”

Kumar said the e-waste problem posed by radiosondes extends beyond the direct hazards from their batteries.

“It takes a lot of resources to manufacture these things,” he said, citing the work of mining the minerals and the energy and water used in their construction. “All these things add up.”

Environment Canada says it is examining alternatives, such as using ground-based instruments to monitor upper-air conditions, but insists nothing available now can replace the accuracy and precision of weather balloon data.

Imported e-waste, including TVs, computers and monitors, that can’t be sold at the Alaba Market in Lagos, Nigeria, is piled up in a nearby swamp. ((Basel Action Network))

Cost-benefit analysis

France has experimented with a parachute-based system to recover its radiosondes. Switzerland recovers and re-uses more than 60 per cent of the devices that it launches. It has been estimated that the United States reuses about 18 per cent of its radiosondes.

Kumar said Environment Canada should at least perform a cost-benefit analysis to support its decision not to recover, noting that the electronics in a radiosonde can be recycled easily.

“The good thing about a radiosonde is most of the things that can be recycled from it. There are already recycling facilities doing it,” he said.

Christine Best, director of the Radar and Upper Air section at the Meteorological Service of Canada, said recovering radiosondes “in the middle of nowhere” using helicopters and snowmobiles would be prohibitively expensive.

“It’s a concern, and we’ve been working with industry, everyone’s been working with industry globally, to minimize the battery, minimize the plastic.”

Using data from 2014, Kumar estimates that only about 20 per cent of the 725,000 tonnes of e-waste generated in Canada that year was collected for proper disposal or recycling. Much of the remainder ended up in landfills, where there is a risk of toxins seeping into groundwater and contaminating soil.

“E-waste is a growing concern, not just in Canada but across the world,” says a paper Kumar co-authored.

“The e-waste collection in Canada has increased in recent years; however, the overall e-waste collection rate is very low compared to the e-waste generation rate.”

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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