ARCHIVE. In a matter of two decades, Doha’s skyline has gone from flat and tan to a jagged skyscraping forest of gleaming metal and concrete structures. Construction continues to boom across Qatar, yet it imports so many construction materials—also known as ‘aggregate’—that the projects are unusually expensive. A research team funded by QNRF and based in Qatar is on track to challenge the current supply practices and radically cut costs while maintaining quality and saving massive amounts of energy used to import heavy materials.
“What we are trying to do is convert waste into an asset and then inform the government here to give them an understanding of how this works,” said Dr. Khaled Hassan, General Manager of TRL Ltd., Qatar Science Technology Park, who is the Lead Principal Investigator (LPI) on a project to test the quality of re-processed waste material in new construction projects, including buildings, roads and other infrastructure.
“We are trying to achieve a major cost saving—converting materials from waste that’s expensive to dispose of, into an asset that generates a potentially huge income. We are also thinking more green, more environmentally, in terms of reuse and energy savings.”
The first phase of the project involved reviewing the supply chain—i.e., identifying main waste materials with potential use in construction. Dr. Hassan said that the majority of the waste comes from construction sites. The two main waste zones within the construction field are excavation waste, and construction and demolition waste. In all cases, huge amounts of material are generated and automatically considered waste.
“It’s important to consider that it’s only human for people to look at something and if you tell them it’s a waste material they will think it is low quality,” he said. “Based on this first reaction, they just reject the material and don’t think about how they can use it again.”
From the first phase of the project, Dr. Hassan uncovered a potential goldmine of resources. In Qatar today, there are around 100 million tons of construction waste material that could be reused.
“Based on 2012 consumption of imported aggregate, that [100 million tons] can supply Qatar for five years,” he said. “So what we are seeing is, in terms of availability, this could be very beneficial to the construction industry.”
Dr. Hassan earned his PhD at Leeds University in the UK and worked there for 12 years as an academic before joining TRL. He felt a strong pull to apply the knowledge he had gained over the years and made the leap into applied research. It’s projects like these—where he can practically apply research and connect the academic and industrial communities in a shared goal—that erase any doubt in his mind that he made the right decision.
“We need to benefit from this research, and that’s why it’s my love. When I formed the project team, I gathered together the main stakeholders, including Qatar Standard for the important implementation of the project’s outcomes, and Qatar University, for the academic side of the work. When we are successful, we can all help to improve construction specifications and practices.”
Dr. Hassan is especially interested in sharing the findings as widely as possible so that if the results of his research prove positive, they will transform the construction industry across the country. The research is moving along and has now entered the testing stage.
The second phase of the process involved construction of model buildings made from different types of alternative aggregate materials. Three buildings were constructed—one made with conventional imported aggregate and local washed sand and two made with different types of alternative ‘aggregate’ materials. The buildings are now finished and according to the research schedule will be tested over a year to understand their behavior in Qatar’s environmental conditions over time.
“I’m not saying that waste material is top quality,” Dr. Hassan explained. “I’m saying that in our research, we are demonstrating that with appropriate processing of construction waste, it could be used in the highest value application of structural concrete. And we know that if it works in the highest value application, it will definitely work in lower value applications.”
Qatar Standard, part of Qatar’s Ministry of Environment, is not only a project partner but also a stakeholder with whom Dr. Hassan shares decision-making power on this project. Additionally, he has assembled an advisory board including representatives from aggregate suppliers, concrete suppliers, consultant agencies, and clients. He divided the project into tasks and invites stakeholders to meetings before tasks begin so that he’s working from multiple insights.
“I just want to make sure that the project outcomes are practical and could be easily implemented,” he explained. “We have a very good link with the construction industry including Ashghal, Qatar Rail and Qatar 2022. The information we are generating is not confidential. The main idea is to help people cross a barrier so that we can work with standards and potentially accept and approve alternative aggregate materials that would benefit everyone here in Qatar.”
In the end, Dr. Hassan said it’s exciting and important to work on a project that is based entirely in Qatar. The newly constructed test building site is in Doha, directly across from the Ashghal Center for Research and Development. It will be used to test these materials as the weather bears down on them. In addition to the model buildings, several road safety barriers, concrete soak away segments and blocks have been made from the recycled aggregate and are now exposed to outdoor conditions. They will be subject to testing over the coming year.
“I can make this material in the lab and it would be a fantastic experiment, but would it survive in Qatar’s environmental conditions—in summer, winter, the heat, the salt, the humidity? The lab cannot replicate actual conditions. A real environmental assessment can’t be done over one year. It has to be done over a long time. But within the current project, we will monitor this for one year to begin to see how it reacts through the summer and winter. We will also consider long-term monitoring at the end of the project,” he said.
Of all of the potential impacts this project could have, Dr. Hassan said the economic benefits would be the most obvious. For now, all quality aggregate is imported from the UAE; he said that the price of shipping and buying material could be cut by 75 percent if the supply-demand loop is closed within Qatar. The second most obvious will be in terms of environmental benefits associated with waste disposal and energy savings.
“Qatar’s landfill sites hold approximately 100 million tons,” he explained. “That’s a lot already; and then what are we going to do? The projections show that a lot more waste will be generated, so we need to think more sustainably.”
In the end, Dr. Hassan credits QNRF not only for its financial support but also because of the vision its executives have maintained when supporting projects like these:
“I would like to thank QNRF for sponsoring such a project. They have been very keen about the implementation of research and the outcomes. I changed my career because of this. As an academic I feel that people should benefit from what I do. I moved from academia into applied research abroad, here to Qatar, to apply what I’ve learned. I’m delighted to see that QNRF is moving in this direction, because this is what we need for continuous development of the country. You can do your own research and keep on applying it, revising it and improving it.”
For more information about this project, see this edition's video podcast.
ARCHIVE. The treatment of open wounds is something that we take for granted as a systemized approach to health. Yet, the history of wound care as we know it spans back just 200 years. It was only in the early 1800s that Hungarian physician Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis proposed hand washing as an approach that could prevent infection. Physician Joseph Lister took this insight forward to treat surgical gauze with carbonic acid, which cut his surgical team’s mortality rate by nearly half. Today, the field of wound care is in the midst of a similar kind of transformation based on moisture and pH monitoring. Research in Qatar is making a significant contribution to this next leap forward.
Professor Patricia Connolly, of Strathclyde University in Scotland, has already made significant progress in moisture monitoring, with her patented WoundSense technology, currently used in Saudi Arabia, the United States, Scotland and UK (promoted there through the Department of Health). The technology monitors wound moisture without bandage removal, which, if unnecessary, is time and resource intensive as well as risky in terms of exposing wounds to infection—unless moisture levels indicate the need.
“Patients should be able to monitor moisture levels without removing the dressing,” Professor Connolly said. “The design involves sensors that are economical, sterile and disposable.”
WoundSense technology relies on electrodes that are in direct contact with the wound fluid. Ink is used as a conductor, so that the nature of the electrical signal along it can be used to indicate the level of moisture—essentially, the ionic (charged particle) movement and the level of resistance (to that movement) along the ink is directly related to the level of moisture in the wound, as is the system’s ability to store an electric charge.
“Technically we are measuring impedence,” Professor Connolly explained. “This is resistance and capacitance, the ability of an electrical system to store and conduct an electrical charge—it’s quite a sophisticated monitor we’ve set up.”
Professor Connolly said that there is a correlation between the rate and success of healing and the level of moisture in leg ulcers, which are a focal point of wound management research. This knowledge translates to other types of wounds as well.
“We are looking at ways for people to use this system at home so that nurses can visit and focus on other things besides changing dressings,” she said. “This would save nursing time."
Given the success of the moisture-detection technology, Professor Connolly has received support to oversee a large-scale study into similar technology based on pH. Funded by a QNRF National Priorities Research Program grant, she has teamed up with Dr. Ihab Seoudi and Dr. Hanadi Al Hamad, Consultant in Geriatric Medicine—both of Hamad Medical Corporation—to conduct a multi-disciplinary study into ways of monitoring pH at the wound site, which would offer insights into how the wound is progressing that have never before been available at early stages.
“The interesting thing about pH is that there are many questions associated with it,” Professor Connolly said. “pH is related to inflammation and infection, and nobody has done extensive research on this at the bedside. In Qatar we hope to build up a complete picture about how pH affects a wound.”
Until now, bacterial growth and wound progress have been based on observations alone. This wisdom has been cultivated over many generations of clinical practice, and yet it still comes up short compared to what pH sensors could offer.
“With this technology, we are able to provide a diagnostic profile that’s based on science,” Professor Connolly said. “Before, it was up to the nurses’ observations of debrided, dead tissue as well as the smell and look of a wound. By the time these signals came through, it could be quite far down the infection line. We will now have a lot more experience and parameters and be able to offer a better picture of what is going on with the wound and in turn be able to better manage intervention.
“QNRF support has been important in building the international collaboration among medical technicians, scientists, clinicians, wound management diagnostics experts and a lot of different specialists coming together. It’s hard to find the level of funding around a cross-disciplinary team like this, and it’s really important for the advancement of this technology.”
Sensors for Advanced Wound Care.
ARCHIVE. Seat belts and smart cameras are a few ways that automobiles actively protect passengers. Should your or another driver’s judgment fail, these features create a buffer between you and serious injury or death. This buffer is responsible for a great reduction in the number of traffic deaths, yet visit any emergency ward, anywhere in the world, and you’ll see that there is still much room for improvement.
The first priority in developing the technology is to enhance safety through alerting drivers about potential accidents
“About ten years ago, car makers sat together and said that they did whatever they could do in terms of passive safety systems such as airbags and seat belts,” said Dr. Fethi Filali, Senior R&D Expert and Technology Lead at Qatar Mobility Innovations Center (QMIC), and lead Principal Investigator of a National Priorities Research Program project to advance intelligent systems in vehicles. “So we said, let’s work on another type of technology that is more active; this means that cars need to talk to each other and to road-side infrastructure with the end result of informing the driver about any imminent danger and avoiding crashes.”
Dr. Filali said that recent studies have shown that at least 80 percent of accidents involve at least some form of driver distraction within three seconds of the crash, meaning that the driver was unable to see what was coming before the crash. The technology under study through the Qatar-based Cooperative Cars and Roads for Safer and Intelligent Transportation Systems (CopITS) project is targeting a communication system between vehicles and between the vehicles and roadside units that will inform the driver through audible, visual, and even tactile alerts (vibration in the steering wheel or the seat) depending on the gravity of the situation.
“There are a lot of studies that have been done in the US and Europe that showed that if you combine vehicle-to-vehicle communication and vehicle-to-infrastructure together there will be a reduction of up to 81 percent of the accidents—that is when we have high penetration of the technology.
Qatar’s project is just one around the world contributing to this technology, but it is the only applied research project in the GCC contributing to its development and standardization. For example, studies in Europe and the US have targeted ways of informing the driver of conditions without distracting them, for example.
“They are using pilot tests—known in Europe as Field Operational Tests—to collect and analyze huge data in addition to distributing questionnaires to the public. These tests involve hundreds of cars and hundreds of normal drivers” Dr. Filali said. They are very important to make sure that we arrive at good technology that presents the information to the driver in different situations and in highly-optimized ways.”
The technology developed needs to be standardized, like cell phone technology, so that cars can talk to each other no matter their make or model and no matter where in the world they are. Over the long run, the technology will be fitted automatically into every new car. In the meantime, it will be available as an after-market product that can be retrofitted. Dr. Filali said that his team estimates the first units will be used around Qatar in about three to five years, yet it will take about 15 to 20 years to reach a point of 90 percent penetration around the world with the technology.
“We see Qatar as a good place to do a pilot and optimize this technology because the rate of purchase of new cars here is maybe one of the highest in the world, so most probably the penetration of this technology will be faster than in other places.”
The first objective of the work being done in Qatar is to address local requirements and driving challenges specific to the nation, especially in terms of road safety applications. Dr. Filali said that the work being done in Qatar will not overlap that being done in Europe or the United States.
“Qatar has recently launched a ten-year National Road Safety Strategy, with a lot of recommendations to reduce road accidents in Qatar and improve road safety,” Dr. Filali said. “So this is really in line with that strategy and in the long term we will be able to implement many road safety actions. If you analyze accidents here in Qatar, you find that most of them are due to driver distraction or speeding. So we need to give priority in terms of safety applications to reduce the number of accidents and achieve the objectives of the Qatar road safety strategy”
The applications of connected vehicle technology are divided into three categories: road safety, traffic efficiency and value-added services. Improving road safety is the most important focus of the technology, followed by features that inform drivers about roadworks or a traffic jam ahead. Value-added services will allow people in different vehicles to exchange videos and media.
The theoretical coverage area of this technology is one kilometer. Within this range, cars will be able to communicate free of charge since the signal is based on short-range communications with a coverage range much higher than Wi-Fi.
In addition to addressing nation-specific traffic and safety issues, the CopITS project will contribute to the standards being adopted worldwide. Qatar Mobility Innovations center (QMIC) is a member of ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute), one of the leading standards developing organizations. Dr. Filali’s connected vehicle team participates actively, every three months, in technology committee meetings and every six months in test events aimed at testing the interoperability between vendors’ prototypes and their compliance to the standard. He said they have access to the latest drafts of the standards, and implement them in QMIC’s connected car.
“We have our own connected car and we are using it for demonstrations. It’s a VW Tiguan. We work with VW because Qatar has a big share in the VW group. We are partnering with them to demonstrate our in-car, built-in infotainment/navigation system—the drivers will not see any additional device, so they will think it’s through the same navigation system. In a period of two to four months we are looking to upgrade the installed system in our model car to enable this seamless integration and add more standard-compliant capabilities and applications.”
Dr. Filali said that carmakers want the technology streamlined to the point of costing less than US$ 100, which seems really low but could be achieved when the parts are produced in bulk. He said there would also be a lot of incentives around this technology on the part of governments, who will back it for its potential to enhance road safety significantly.
The CopITS team is based entirely in Qatar, and Dr. Filali said he is grateful for the support of QNRF, which has allowed them to make significant progress and even achieve patents in this critical field.
ARCHIVE. Because of their ability to become any type of cell in the body and potentially restore damaged tissues, stem cells have long been the focus of research. Yet progress in the field of stem-cell-based regenerative medicine has all but reached a stand still. The two main focal points of this research—embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells—have not yet reached consistency in terms of their ability to produce disease-free cells that regrow organ tissue. Researchers based in New York City and Doha are working on an approach that involves the endothelial cells that make up the vascular system as a supportive "niche" for growing stem cells.
"Endothelial cells are the mother load,” said Shahin Rafii, Arthur B. Belfer Professor of Genetic and Regenerative Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and one of the lead investigators on this unique approach to regenerative stem cell therapy. "They produce growth factors. They produce cytokines. They produce enablers and enzymes to make organs regenerate. This applies to every stem cell in your body whether its brain, or heart muscle … endothelial cells are not just a conduit to deliver nutrients or oxygen, they directly support organ regeneration."
Several years ago, Dr. Rafii discovered a key technique that promotes the stability of endothelial cells and allows them to produce angiocrine factors contributing to the establishment of a "vascular niche." The technique involves inserting part of a virus into the endothelial cell so that it over-expressed a protein that supports and stabilizes the niche for stem cell growth. In essence the endothelium through the over-expression of the protein becomes an active producer of substances that support growth in a direction specific to the endothelial cells of the organ.
"In developmental systems, endothelial cells precede the organ," said Dr. Jeremie Arash Rafii Tabrizi, Associate Professor of Genetic Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar and collaborator on this QNRF National Priorities Research Program-funded research into endothelial stem cell niche therapy. "Whether in the liver or lung, the organs usually form around endothelial cells that act as a niche. Before the growth of organs and even before the settlement of a blood flow, endothelial cells have a role in promoting the constitution of an organ."
In the case of IPS and embryonic cells, the stem cells either do not proliferate, contain the potential to form tumors or grow in an unstable way, wherein they “drift,” i.e., become other types of cells than those of the target organ or tissue.
"It’s going to be a long time before we can harness the potential of IPS or embryonic derived stem cells," said Dr. Rafii. "Cellular derivatives of IPS and the cellular derivatives of embryonic stem cells are very unstable."
Stepping back and working with the niche to support the stem cell growth in a stable, natural environment is where the team hopes to make significant progress in regenerative medicine. For example, Dr. Rafii Tabrizi explained that hematopoietic (blood stem) cells produce countless platelets and white blood cells on a daily basis and these cells are produced consistently. The stability of their production is due to the microscopic endothelial niche that supports the hematopoietic cells. Work has been conducted in the bone marrow and placenta to further explore the potential for endothelial cells to enhance stable and prolific growth of stem cells. The results have been promising.
"Actually we have proven it works with animals," Dr. Rafii explained. "Now we need funding to move it to humans, to transplant the organ-specific endothelium, optimize its capacity for damaged tissue, optimize its capacity to produce growth factors optimize its capacity to prevent fibrotic changes as the organ heals. This is just the beginning of a major endeavor for the next ten years."
Research into cancer tumor formation has contributed to the understanding of the endothelial niche as well, Dr. Rafii Tabrizi said. Although researchers have been looking from the perspective of breaking up the blood vessels and stopping the growth of tissues, they are still honing in on the mechanisms at play in the endothelial niche.
"So this platform is very powerful," he said. "Because in one respect we can understand how we can use endothelium to regenerate and in another we can understand how the endothelium is used by tumors to grow so that we can try to target this aspect. The same cues that are used in development of tissues are usually hijacked by cancer cells, so understanding them in one setting can help us prevent them."
The research team is in the process of applying for an NPRP-Exceptional Program grant in collaboration with renowned surgeon, Dr. Magdi Yacoub, Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Imperial College London, who has access to many patients who are in a chronic state due to complications of diabetes.
"In Qatar one of the biggest health problems is diabetes," Dr. Rafii Tabrizi said, "and one of the aspects of diabetes is a chronic state of hypoperfusion (decreased blood flow to an organ), especially in the legs. In this case the nerve dies and the vessels die."
These complications often result in amputations. The team sees these cases as a chance to apply endothelial therapy, which could potentially restore the tissue not only through restoring blood flow but also by delivering the appropriate growth factors.
"The evidence we’ve built is prompting us to move fast," Dr. Rafii Tabrizi said. "It is really great that QNRF has already supported our studies—they’ve shown a real eagerness to fund real innovative research. The major achievement will not only come from good publications but also from our ability to translate findings into patient care. This will be a major achievement for Qatar."
NPRP 08-663-3–140 :
Stage Specific Differentiation of Pluripotent Stem Cells into Functional Hemangiogenic Tissues