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. 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
ARCHIVE. Compared to studies in the fields of biology and engineering, nonlinear dynamics might not be so obvious in terms of its worth. In reality, it is an area of physics research that permeates the natural world and a field integral to so many others. Dr. Milivoj Belic won the 2012 QNRF Research Team of the Year Award for his prolific contributions in this field, accounting for more than ten percent of Texas A&M at Qatar’s publications. His team’s specific focus is nonlinear optics, wherein they research the behavior of materials and laser light as they interact.
“What we do is manipulate photons, which are particles of light that can also be considered waves,” Dr. Belic said, “and we consider processes that happen in material when you shine laser light on them. So in essence we play with the wave phenomena. This is under the umbrella of quantum mechanics, but we do not do quantum mechanics; we do nonlinear optics.”
In linear optics photons do not “talk to” each other; however, in nonlinear optics they do, through the medium. Understanding the conversations—through the evolving language of nonlinear equations, i.e., nonlinear dynamics—helps researchers understand the material under study.
“In physics, very few things are done and finished once and for all, at least what has been done within the last century,” Dr. Belic said. “Most of those things are a never-ending story. Bit by bit you discover new things. But the problems and topics of research are there … an immense number of unsolved questions and half-baked answers.”
By running lasers through different types of materials such as gases, photo-refractive crystals, and nematic liquid crystals, Dr. Belic and his team observe the entire system as the light propagates, to get an idea of the material's response and the processes at play. The equations describing these processes are linked to waves and light and also with the response of the material—so it is both the response of the material and the behavior of the laser light, together, that are studied.
“We attack nonlinear equations; so it’s a mathematical physics problem. Now with such equations, it’s not like ‘aha, that’s it, we solved it!’—most often, it cannot be solved, at least not analytically. You have to try something different. Still, for many such equations we found ways to treat them analytically and this is something for which my team is becoming known internationally.”
The mathematical language around many physical phenomena is based on differential equations. A classic example would be the Schrödinger equation, which describes how the state of a quantum system changes over time. This is useful in linear systems and quantum mechanics. However, Dr. Belic explained that nonlinear dynamics is even more challenging than quantum mechanics. Specifically, it involves nonlinear Schrödinger equations and relies heavily on computers to crunch numbers because the responses in nonlinear systems are sometimes so erratic, evading analysis through the equations used in more predictable systems. Interestingly, most natural systems and materials require nonlinear thinking.
“Laws of physics are laws of nature,” Belic explained. “You have to master them and you have to know how to apply them. Mathematics is the language of nature. Things in nature are best explained through mathematics. Physics is essentially applied mathematics. In theoretical physics, you have to reason. But then you have experimental physics, so you have to experiment—to make a model, make predictions and test them. This can also turn out the other way around, where somebody finds something experimentally and then explains it.”
Whereas research in many fields is goal or product oriented, Dr. Belic said his team’s research is often curiosity-driven. A co-evolution of experiment and theory, the research requires a constant striving into the unknown.
“We are always trying to understand things, to contribute to a bank of understanding about nature at the basic level,” Dr. Belic explained. “We don’t produce gadgets—we want to know how they work. Here in Qatar, we had to start from scratch, so we started with theory. Some of our experiments are performed in other places such as Australia, the US, Serbia, France and Germany … we have a lot of collaborators.
“This work could contribute to other fields, not tomorrow, not today but in the foreseeable future,” he continued. “Newton formulated his laws in mathematical terms, and at the time people were asking ‘what is this for?’ It was a hundred years before people realized how useful they were.”
What excites Dr. Belic now is the potential to collaborate with researchers in other fields, enriching findings with the basic knowledge of physics and properties of materials.
“Before, physicians were doing their thing, mathematicians were doing their thing, chemists were doing their thing, and that approach was disjointed. But now we realize that if you want to make progress in brain research you cannot do so by the medical profession alone. For example, one of my collaborators is making a mathematical model of a brain cancer tumor. We all have to work together and that is the idea. And that is really the push nowadays with the funding agencies. Our team would like to go and collaborate with the Qatar Foundation institutes and has begun discussions with many of them.”
Establishing homegrown teams that are capable of producing great research requires a long period of cultivation. Qatar Foundation and TAMUQ have chosen this path and have generously supported the creation of high-quality team-oriented research centers. This turns the spotlight toward Qatar Foundation and TAMUQ as well as the whole Middle Eastern region. We greatly appreciate the strong support we have been given by TAMUQ and QNRF, and look forward to a bright future,” Dr. Belic said.
Nonlinear Photonics for All-optical Telecommunication and Information Technologies.