Welcome to the first edition of Red River College’s Inventory of College Applied Research Expertise Researcher Spotlight. Check back on a regular basis to learn more about the researchers that are available to help you solve problems and innovate.
Neil Cooke is the chair of transportation heavy apprenticeship trades at Red River College’s Notre Dame Campus, a position he has held since 2006.
At this post he oversees a combined staff of 60 employees situated around Red River College campuses, including the Heavy Equipment Training Centre (HETC) and building “M” at the Notre Dame Campus, Bannister Avenue heavy trades building, and the CN Transcona rail training facility. Enrolment in the apprenticeship trades hovers around 2,000 students annually, making Cooke a key figure for the future of Manitoba’s skilled trades workers in the heavy transportation sector.
Cooke holds his interprovincial certification as a heavy-duty technician, a masters degree in education (M. Ed. Post Secondary Administration) from the University of Manitoba and a bachelor of science (B.Sc. Tech Ed) from Ferris State University. With a diverse educational and experiential history behind him, he is acutely aware that our future workforce is key to the province’s continued success.
“From a research perspective, what we are now doing is embedding our applied research in the curriculum we deliver. This is done so we are preparing our students to think a little differently about the technological changes that they are going to face within the motive power industry,” said Cooke.
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“We might not even recognize our transportation industry in five, ten, fifteen years from now, and these students are going to have to become adaptable to change. That’s what we are hoping we are doing by inserting applied research into our basic curriculum.”
At HETC, the majority of applied research work that is done concerns the future of motive power, namely zero emissions electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells, and the utilization and creation of biodiesel.
On the electric vehicle front, HETC was instrumental in getting the wheels turning on Winnipeg’s first all-electric, zero emissions transit bus which the College developed along with industry partners New Flyer Industries, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Manitoba Hydro and the Province of Manitoba.
While Mitsubishi supplied the lithium ion batteries, it was up to HTEC to take the raw battery components and configure them to perform optimally in New Flyer’s Xcelsior bus.
“On the first run [at configuring the battery packs] Mitsubishi’s engineers came here and oversaw the assembly of the units,” said Cooke.
“For the second run they wanted to change the configurations of the battery packs – some of which are located in the regular engine compartment in a diesel bus configuration in the Xcelsior series, while the secondary pack goes on the roof. So they wanted a different engine bay configuration.
One of our manufacturing technologists here on staff – along with some students – put together a new design, did the testing and put it all in a package which New Flyer Industries then installed.”
This new configuration saw the all-electric bus through rigorous, real world tests on Winnipeg’s roads this past winter (which was the coldest winter on record in over a century) as the bus was used to transport Manitoba Hydro employees from their Taylor Avenue office to their downtown headquarters.
It was the first time an all-electric transit bus and rapid charging station were demonstrated in such conditions, and the applied research project has now entered its next phase with four new buses being rolled out in the near future – all of which HETC staff and students will have a hand in.
Regarding biodiesel, applied research at HETC has been instrumental in both lessening the College’s Notre Dame campus’ carbon footprint, while laying solid groundwork for making biodiesel production more efficient. In fact, HETC is one of only three licensed biodiesel producing facilities in Manitoba.
“We originally purchased a small biodiesel reactor and, from the used vegetable oil out of RRC kitchens, we can produce about 150 litres per cycle in a four and a half hour period,” said Cooke. “But we weren’t happy with the design and the capacity of the unit as our demand increased, so we modified it and made it bigger.”
“Mike Myrowich, our lead instructor on the project, then got a second small grant from the College Applied Research Development (CARD) Fund and built a biodiesel reactor with our boilermakers, our ironworkers and our welding department, along with some of the tech people from our electrical department.
We now have one that produces 450 litres in the same cycle time. And the residual material we get out of that is biodegradable – it is about a handful of waste that you can throw out while the rest we can make cleaning products out. So we’ve repurposed something you would normally have to pay to take away and then we use it in our grounds equipment here, they burn the fuel.”
HETC also had the ability to produce their own hydrogen, which they use for applied research projects on a hydrogen-hybrid equipped vehicle. The College leased a hydrogen electrolyser to produce hydrogen for the project with industry partner Manitoba Hydro and the Sun/Ice bus that involved studying a converted bus with a Ford Triton V-10 engine designed to run on hydrogen.
In short, if there is a project that involves making heavy-duty vehicles more energy efficient, cost effective, and better for the environment, then HETC is looking in to it. Because of this, along with their ability to produce expert technicians and mechanics, HETC has become beacon for generous donations from national, Winnipeg-based trucking companies like Maxim Truck and Trailer and Bison Transport.
Before embarking into the pedagogical field, Cooke had demonstrated over 30 years of industry experience working in Manitoba’s transportation sector, where he still keeps close contacts. He’s worked extensively in the heavy truck industry as a technician, mechanic and consultant, while he currently sits as the chair of the Canadian Association of Motive Power Educators and as an executive member of the Canadian National Accreditation Board for motive power programming. In early 2014, Cooke was also appointed by the federal government to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC); a major distinction considering there are only 12 council members from across Canada.
While Cooke has been the chair of transportation heavy apprenticeship trades at Red River College for the past eight years, he will admit he does still long for the classroom, as his first foray into the College was as an instructor and academic coordinator for transportation math and science.
“For thirteen years I was an instructor here and I still miss that,” said Cooke. “The most interesting part is interacting with the students then seeing them come back as apprentices, or seeing them come back for product service training and seeing how they have developed and seeing how their career is doing.
I find that very interesting, especially when you go out to visit a carrier’s office and you see a former student – especially now that a lot of them are now supervisors or managers. They’ve really moved through the system and it is rewarding, and a lot of that can be attributed to the hands on experience they get here assisting with our applied research projects.”