A soft-spoken man with a ready wit and a love of practical science, Dr. Michael Graham is the son of an Anglican priest and a nun. The story of how this man with a PhD in the process of water movement in corn became the project lead for the Wave Energy Research Centre in Lord’s Cove is anything but a straight line.
Along with his family, he moved at an early age from his birth place in Saskatchewan to an island in the Strait of Belle Isle and from there to various other rural Quebec communities until, when he was in his teens the family settled on Cape Breton Island. Graham’s father encouraged his practical approach to science. At seven years of age, with “a little help from Dad,” he built a shortwave radio. By the time he was ten he reverse-engineered a radio and tapped into the household telephone so he could “listen in when my older sister was talking to her boyfriend.”
When he shipped out to university at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, Graham wanted to be medical doctor. But during first year he met two people who were to change the course of his life. One of them was his first-year biology lab partner Kathleen Polley. They graduated together and married in 1980. The other was David Fensom, professor in plant physiology, whose enthusiasm about water movement in plants helped convince Graham to switch career tracks.
“I knew I was interested in living things but, especially, I’ve always been fascinated by how things work,” says Graham. Preferring to be able to work out practical solutions rather than memorize facts. Graham recalls that, “Although I started out as a biology student I did more chemistry and engineering. … This joint connects to that one … that was my approach to problem solving.”
Graham credits his 20-year involvement in the Scouts with transferring his interest from how technology worked to how living systems function. “Scouting instilled an interest in the outdoors and the natural world,” he says.
There was no doubt about Graham’s continuing his education and, after some investigation he applied to the University of Toronto for a masters in botany under the renowned Dr. Mel Tyree who, for his numerous contributions concerning the transport of water in trees, went on to win the 2002 Marcus Wallenberg Prize or, as it is popularly known, the “Nobel Prize for Forestry.” Tyree was a friend of Graham’s Mount Allison mentor Fensom. At UT he completed his masters on water movement in trees, which according to Graham are essentially a complex system of tiny pipes. Looking for a practical application of this knowledge, he wanted to know more about water movement between plants and environment. So he did his doctoral work at the University of Guelph obtaining a PhD in agricultural meteorology studying the effects of weather on photosynthesis in corn.
His first job was as a greenhouse climate control specialist at the University of Laval in Quebec City. From there he and his wife moved their young family of two girls and a boy to southern Ontario in 1989 where he was the horticultural crops advisor for the Green House Vegetable Marketing Board when “a teaching job came up in Newfoundland and I said, ‘What the hell, I’ll give it a shot.’” So he applied and was invited for an interview. Before he left, his wife advised him to look around because, “She said, ‘We are not going unless there is a hospital, a high school, and grocery stores, and they are paying you more than you are making now.’”
Graham landed the job and the whole family moved to the province in 1991 as Graham assumed the one-year teaching position at the Burin Campus of the College of the North Atlantic. “We came for a year and we’ve been here ever since.”
For the first 15 years Graham taught first-year biology. It was toward the end of this time that he became involved in economic development. One evening, at a meeting of the Aquaculture and Emerging Fisheries Working Group, an unemployed fisherman said he wanted to get into aquaculture so he could stay in the area but, he told the committee, according to experts there were no suitable ocean sites. “He said land-based aquaculture wasn’t possible because it cost too much to pump water. And me and my big mouth said, ‘Why don’t you use wave energy?’” admits Graham with a laugh. “I knew a little about the subject because I’d just helped my daughter with a grade 9 project on wave energy for the science fair.”
That was in 2002. Graham and colleague Leon Fiander became convinced that land-based aquaculture could happen in rural communities. “All we had to do was figure out a way to harness the energy from waves, and then devise a way to use that energy to pump the water.”
But first they had to get the funding for the research project. Graham essentially did that “off the side of my desk. It was mainly a labour of love.” He and Fiander devised a rough budget and applied for funding from ACOA. To their surpirse the application was approved for $500,000 under the Atlantic Innovation Fund.
“That was a great start,” says Graham. “The next step to develop the wave pump was to find a location that met our site requirements. Lord’s Cove fit the bill. The site has worked out really well for us,” he says.
The first wave pump they built wasn’t stable under water. It worked but would capsize when waves hit it. “But if we could keep it up straight, it worked. All we needed to do was solve the mechanics of that.”
That project lasted for five years. “While we were developing the pump we asked ourselves, ‘If we had a wave-powered pump what would the aquaculture system look like? How do we take advantage to use that system? ’” Fiander was working on his master’s degree in environmental science at the time and part of his research was to design a land-based aquaculture system that would take advantage of the wave-powered pump.
Following that analysis they applied for a larger grant and in 2011 were awarded $2.5 million to move to the next level and test an integrated prototype. Since that funding came in Graham’s been working on the project full time. One of the first orders of business was “to measure the conditions of the site, the wave heights, and the bathymetry.”
“With the help of the people in the local community, we renovated the retired fish plant, installed all the instrumentation necessary to measure the waves, and from the data we collected, we designed, built, and tested a scale model wave pump at the wave tank at NRC in St. John’s,” says Graham.
“In essence what we are doing is we’re maximizing the conversion of feed into saleable product,” says Graham. After pumping the water uphill to the uppermost tank with the salmon, they allow the waste water from that tank to drain by gravity into a sequence of lower tanks where they use bottom feeders such as sea urchins and filter feeders such as mussels to actually clean the water before releasing it into the ocean.
They are now at the point where they are seeing growth in the fish and other organisms but the water is still being pumped electrically. The new, improved scale-model wave-energy pump will be installed in the spring of 2015. But logistical challenges remain.
“We need a way to put a pipeline in the water to test the pump and once we’ve solved that we need to test to see how big we can make it and how many we will need for the site. Graham says they must be able to sell the fish and other organisms for a reasonable profit and to scale up the model to commercial size.
Even as the project evolves Graham can already point to a legacy of his and his colleague’s work: the Wave Energy Research Centre (WERC) in Lords Cove is available to any researchers seeking to develop equipment or test devices in a harsh north Atlantic environment. Graham believes that, through WERC, the College of the North Atlantic is well positioned to support aquaculture research.
Graham says they have learned a great deal and he’s looking forward to applying that knowledge in other areas. He is confident that the same technology that “led us to develop an inexpensive pump for aquaculture may also lead us to develop an inexpensive, ecofriendly, and sustainable way to generate electricity.”
But Graham says his most important measure of success is more practical. “What we set out to do was to provide an alternative to having to leave rural communities or to commute long distances for work. Dying communities could be revived,” says Graham. “If we see land-based multi-trophic aquaculture farms operating in several sites and powered by wave energy, then I’ll feel like this project has been a huge success.”