Engineering grad's fertile solution rooted in UWindsor experience
Being urged by his mentors to challenge conventional thinking is what helped a former UWindsor engineering student rise to the top of his academic game and turn a common problem into a solution that could help feed the world.
“I was encouraged to be creative and innovative, to push the boundaries and to not just accept what you see,” said Don Mavinic, who earned his PhD in civil and environmental engineering in 1973. “That’s probably the best thing that happened to me there.”
Dr. Mavinic is now a professor at the University of British Columbia, where he discovered a method of turning the phosphorus-rich nutrients that tend to jam up equipment in wastewater treatment facilities into a commercial fertilizer product.
Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for high-yield crop production, but is relatively scarce. In fact, there are predictions that the world's deposits will be exhausted before the end of the century. Mavinic’s system recovers phosphorus and other compounds that otherwise transform during biodigestion of sewage into a substance called struvite, which accumulates inside bio-reactor tanks and pipe systems and clogs them up like plaque in arteries.
It’s work that has won him a number of awards, including a 2010 Synergy Award for Innovation. It was one of only four such awards handed out last year by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council—one of the others went to UWindsor professor Ahmet Alpas for his work with General Motors to develop lightweight metal components for more energy efficient vehicles.
Mavinic joined UBC in 1973 on a three-year contract fully expecting that he and his wife Susanne, a UWindsor nursing grad, would head back east. He’s now been there for almost 40 years. While he loves his current environment, Mavinic still has many fond memories of his days here and cited professor emeritus Jatinder Bewtra and Alex McCorquodale, now a faculty member at the University of New Orleans, as people who taught him to think outside the box.
One of his most memorable experiences came September 28, 1972, when he was scheduled to defend his PhD thesis—the same day Paul Henderson scored his historic goal to clinch the Summit Series between hockey rivals Canada and the Soviet Union.
“Essex Hall was deserted so I went down to the faculty lounge and everyone was in there,” he said. “They told me to sit down, shut up and watch the game. Everyone was in a pretty jovial mood after that, so defending my thesis was a piece of cake.”
— Stephen Fields, January 2011