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‘Super sponge’ seen as absorbent next step in oil spill mitigation

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Engineers at the University of Calgary say they’ve come up with a fresh and effective new technique in the global hunt for a better way to clean up oil spills. 

The process uses a material they call a “super sponge.” It’s non-toxic and biodegradable, to boot.

To demonstrate, Nashaat Nassar puts bitumen into a two-litre glass container filled with water and then flicks a switch. The mixture is shaken and stirred.

The chemical engineer and associate professor then sprinkles on it a dark powder — a magnetic chemical compound of boron nitride.

“They are hydrophobic. So, they don’t like water. They like oil,” Nassar says.

Nashaat Nassar, a chemical engineer and associate professor at the University of Calgary, is part of the ‘super sponge’ research project. They hope to test it on a larger scale. (Dave Rae/CBC)

At a microscopic level, the material is extremely porous, kind of like a sponge, says Nassar as he demonstrates by hovering a magnet wrapped in foil over the oil and sucks it right out of the water.

“With this material, we can minimize the spread of the oil,” he says. 

The “sponge” also has the benefits of being non-toxic and inexpensive to produce, Nassar says.

The innovative project is part of a burgeoning area of research in oil spill cleanup.

Seth Darling is a scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, where work is ongoing on another possible sponge solution to oil spill cleanup. (Submitted by Seth Darling)

Similar research in the U.S.

Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory just outside Chicago are working on another spongy solution. Theirs uses specially treated sheets of polyurethane foam that can soak up oil.

“You can pick it up, squeeze it like a kitchen sponge, and the oil will come out,” said laboratory scientist Seth Darling.

“We went out there and demonstrated very clearly that you could pick up oil slicks off the surface of the ocean, out there in the real world, deployed from a boat.”

Darling says the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010 — when millions of barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico — prompted many scientists to rethink cleanup technologies.

The explosion at British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon offshore rig on April 20, 2010, killed 11 workers. (U.S. Coast Guard/Associated Press)

“Everyone saw the catastrophic effects it was having on the environment and the monetary burden it also created for the company and the whole local economy there. So, lots of researchers thought, there’s got to be a better way to deal with this than what’s out there. Lots of folks started working on this idea of asorbents.”

Typically, oil spill cleanup involves skimming and burning the crude off the water’s surface, or breaking it down with chemical dispersants.

The powdered boron nitride developed at the University of Calgary, when added to oil, allows the oil to be drawn out of the water with a foil-wrapped magnet. (Dave Rae/CBC)

‘Far from perfect’

The oil recovery rate, though, is far from perfect, says a science historian at the University of King’s College in Halifax.

“Nobody would dispute that our track record is not very good,” Ian Stewart says.

“It’s a very, very complex, deeply challenging thing to deal with.”

The size and location of a spill are also factors in recovery, he says.

Ian Stewart, a science historian at the University of King’s College in Halifax, says the oil recovery rate after a spill is far from perfect. (Submitted by Ian Stewart)

“Five to 15 per cent is what’s said. But it really depends. If you’re in a very calm, secluded bay and you’ve got the right technologies on hand, then a lot more can be recovered. It does vary. The big spills that have happened throughout history, they have typically been in places that were very hard to recover.”

But, he cautions, real world testing of the new cleanup technologies is yet another challenge.

“It’s all promising stuff. The problem, as these researchers will tell you, is that they’re far away from being operational.”

Back at the University of Calgary, researchers recognize that a lab demonstration is one thing. The open ocean is another.

“We are always trying to look at efficient techniques to go beyond the lab and try to have more real solutions to what the industry is facing these days,” Nassar says.

The next step is testing the “super sponge” on a larger scale, he says.

Engineers at the University of Calgary hope to expand the research to larger projects. (Dave Rae/CBC)

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7 Tips For First-Time Home Buyers In Calgary

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Buying a house for the first time can be overwhelming to say the least. If you’re wondering what neighbourhood to go with, what you can afford, or even how to just get started on the process, let us take some stress off your hands! We’ve teamed up with Hopewell Residential to give you 7 tips to ensure the home you end up with is everything you dreamed of.

Hopewell Residential is a five-time Developer of the Year award winner, so their expertise is second-to-none in Calgary and beyond. Who better to learn home-buying tips from than the homebuilders themselves?

Create a checklist of needs & wants

This is a biggie. When you’re buying your very first home, you’ll want to weigh your needs vs. your wants. Ensuring you have what you love in your first home is a big, big deal.

What should you do? Easy. Set up a list of needs and a list of wants, but be pretty strict with yourself, and make sure you take your lifestyle into consideration. With the increase in remote work over the past year, it’s important to keep in mind that a home office or flex room might just be the key to maximizing at home happiness. Especially if you’re thinking you might be expanding your family later on, spare rooms and extra space is key (but more on that later!).

Or for instance, you might need a home in an area with a high walkability score, but you want to be close to certain amenities. Set yourself up with the right level of compromise and the number of homes that actually fit your ‘perfect’ idea will skyrocket.

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‘Don’t give up’: Ottawa Valley realtors share statistics, tips for homebuyers in ‘extreme’ sellers market

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The real estate market in the Ottawa Valley can be summed up this way: people from far and wide are in a buying frenzy, but there’s hardly anything to buy at the “store,” and the limited inventory is overpriced.

This “stampede” — as one realtor described it — will affect rural towns as residents grapple with finding affordable housing and agonize over their inability to purchase homes in their price range.

“We are seeing a lack of inventory in all price ranges,” said Laura Keller, a real estate agent from Carleton Place.

Helen Vincent, a Renfrew realtor, said she’s never seen a market like this in her 36 years of practice. “We postpone offers for four to five days in order to get all the buyers,” she said.

Multiple offers — between seven and 10 — became the norm, with cash offers and no conditions, as buyers faced bidding wars. “In Ottawa, they have up to 50 (offers),” she added.

“It’s very stressful. You’re going to get nine (people) ticked off, and one happy. So many people are disappointed,” Vincent said.

Terry Stavenow, an Arnprior realtor for 40 years, said that “the pent-up need took over with inventory going low. It made a stampede on everything that was available.“

“Brand new housing — it’s very much gone. Several building developers are rushing to get inventory. They usually don’t do construction in the winter months,” said Stavenow.

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10 Tips For First-Time Home Buyers

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Buying a home for the first time is exciting and a commitment to the future. It’s often challenging, too, and the process requires a lot of steps, many of which can be tricky to navigate as a first-time home buyer.

What are some things you should keep in mind as a first-time home buyer?

First-Time Home Buyer Tips

Here are 10 tips to keep in mind as you begin your journey toward homeownership.

1. Have Your Finances in Order

It’s wise to begin saving as early as possible once you’ve made the decision to purchase a house. You’ll need to consider the down payment, closing costs (which often range from 2% to 5% of the down payment), as well as move-in expenses.

You also need to understand the other costs of homeownership, such as mortgage insurance. property taxes, utilities, homeowner’s insurance, and more.

2. How Much Can You Afford?

Knowing how much you can realistically afford in a home is another important financial consideration. Look for the home of your dreams that fits your budget.

One way to avoid future financial stress is to set a price range for your home that fits your budget, and then staying within that range. Going through the preapproval process will help you understand what price range is realistic for your budget.

3. Make Sure Your Credit is Good

Another thing to keep in mind as a first-time home buyer is your credit score because it determines whether you qualify for a mortgage and affects the interest rate that lenders offer. 

You can check your credit score from the three credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

This is another good reason for getting preapproved before you start your search. Learn more about the preapproval process and your credit score.

4. Choose The Right Real Estate Agent

A good real estate agent guides you through the process every step of the way. He or she will help you find a home that fits your needs, help you through the financial processes, and help ease any first-time buyer anxiety you may have.

Interview several agents and request references.

5. Research Mortgage Options

A variety of mortgages are available, including conventional mortgages – which are guaranteed by the government – FHA loans, USDA loans, and VA loans (for veterans).

You’ll also have options regarding the mortgage term. A 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is popular among many homebuyers and has an interest rate that doesn’t change over the course of the loan. A 15-year loan usually has a lower interest rate but monthly payments are larger.

6. Talk to Multiple Lenders

It’s worth your time to talk to several lenders and banks before you accept a mortgage offer. The more you shop around, the better deal you’re liable to get – and it may save you thousands of dollars.

7. Get Preapproved First

Getting a mortgage preapproval (in the form of a letter) before you begin hunting for homes is something else to put on your checklist. A lender’s preapproval letter states exactly how much loan money you can get.

Learn more about the preapproval process and how preapproval provides you with a significant competitive advantage in our article How Preapproval Gives You Home Buying Power.

8. Pick the Right House and Neighborhood

Make sure to weigh the pros and cons of the different types of homes based on your budget, lifestyle, etc. Would a condominium or townhome fit your needs better than a house? What type of neighborhood appeals to you?

9. List Your Needs and Must-Haves

The home you purchase should have as many of the features you prefer as possible. List your needs in order of priority; some things may be non-negotiable to you personally.

10. Hire an Inspector

Hiring an inspector is another crucial step in the home buying process. An inspector will tell you about existing or potential problems with the home, and also what’s in good order. You can learn more about home inspections and how to find a home inspector through the American Society of Home Inspectors website.

Buying a home for the first time is a challenge, but it’s one you can handle with the right planning and preparation.

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