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Discoveries and Innovations

  1. Introduction
  2. Scientific Research Helps World War II War Effort
  3. Where it All Started – Animation in the NRC labs
  4. The Development of a Canadian Astronaut Program
  5. The Science Behind our Athletes
  6. World's first simulation-based brain surgery performed in Halifax
  7. Physics Finds a Better Way to Target Cancer
  8. NRC Research Helps Build a Billion-Dollar Canola Business
  9. Keeping Canada on Time
  10. Concrete and Cement Science Still Stand Strong
  11. Innovative Devices Improve the Lives of the Disabled
  12. Eliminating E. coli for Safer Food and Water
  13. Saving Survivors by Finding Fallen Aircrafts
  14. Science Improves Crime-Busting Techniques
  15. NRC Science Protects a Patriotic Symbol
  16. Streamlining the Steam Locomotive
  17. Winning the War against Infant Meningitis
  18. Bomb Sniffers Battle Terrorist Threats
  19. Extending Canada's Role in Space Exploration
  20. Space Vision System Helps Astronauts See in Space
  21. A New Era in Electronic Music
  22. Thin-film Technology Helps Foil Counterfeiters
  23. Virtualizing Reality: Preserving Treasures and Innovating Entertainment
  24. Engineering a Better Quality of Life


For more than 90 years, NRC scientists have been improving the lives of Canadians and our economy through exciting discoveries and innovative research. From biotechnology to aerospace research, astronomy to nanotechnology, NRC research plays a key role.

Read on to learn about some of NRC's greatest accomplishments.

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Scientific Research Helps World War II War Effort

Like the brave soldiers fighting in the war, scientists put their bodies on the line on the home front in an effort to help others. At this time it was not unusual for scientists to conduct experiments on themselves. In the name of science, they subjected themselves to mustard gas exposure, test flights without cabin pressurization, and other risks.

Scientists put their lives on the line to protect soldiers

The pressure of war can be a great motivator for medical research. During the war, NRC scientists were examining penicillin, ways to prevent wound infection, typhus vaccines, shock, fatigue, plastic surgery, the nervous system, tuberculosis, and burns – research that would continue to be important after the war ended. They even studied the psychological aspects of returning home from war, much like today's researchers study post-traumatic stress disorder among returning soldiers.

Re-adjusting to home life can be especially difficult for soldiers who suffer serious injuries in battle. In the Second World War, the discovery and use of penicillin allowed many soldiers to survive injuries that would previously have killed them, but that also meant they returned home to face the reality of living with paralysis or other disabilities.

It was while working with severely disabled veterans that NRC inventor George Klein found the inspiration to develop the first practical motorized wheelchair, an innovation that not only gave veterans and other people with disabilities the ability to move around freely on their own, but also a sense of independence they might not otherwise have had.

A new era in atomic energy

In the 1940s, countries around the world were in a race to understand atomic energy. Though not directly intended for the war effort, NRC developed world-class nuclear research facilities that included Canada's first nuclear reactor prototype and the first nuclear reactor ever built outside of the United States.

By 1947, NRC's Chalk River Laboratories east of Ottawa housed a new reactor called NRX (National Research eXperimental) – the most powerful reactor in the world for several years. Soon after it opened, NRX began producing radioisotopes which are still used today for cancer diagnosis and treatment. Canada remains the world's largest exporter of radioisotopes. Today isotopes from Chalk River are used to treat more than 21 million patients in over 60 countries each year.

In 1957, another research reactor opened called NRU (National Research Universal). This reactor was ten times more powerful than NRX, meaning that Canada once again had the most powerful reactor on earth for several years.

Today Canada has 22 operational reactors that provide 16 % of the country's electricity and 50 % of Ontario's electricity, all without greenhouse gas emissions.

NRX and NRU served as a powerful experimental laboratory – a training ground for engineers and designers of the Canadian nuclear power system, CANDU. Innovative technologies for cancer therapy and radiation measurement were developed at Chalk River and are now used all over the world. The wartime facilities are still used for cutting-edge research in a variety of scientific fields today.

Engineering safety advances in the air

NRC scientists conducted a great deal of wartime research into flight. Not only did their jet propulsion engine research culminate in the magnificent ORENDA engine, which broke records as soon as it was completed and sold a quarter of a million dollars worth of engines, but they also worked to ensure the safety of pilots.

At the outbreak of war, Dr. Banting and a team of university researchers in Toronto were studying problems pilots faced at high altitudes and speeds. Blindness and unconsciousness occurred when blood was drawn away from pilots' eyes and brains by the accentuated effects of gravity during aerial battles and dog fights.

The team built the first North American decompression chamber to study the effects of high altitude and an accelerator to test the effects of speed. They also developed an improved oxygen mask and the world's first anti-gravity suit to protect pilots from blacking out at high altitudes and speeds. Called both the "anti-G" suit and the "Franks suit" (after its inventor, Wilbur Franks), it was first used in 1942 by carrier-based Royal Navy aircraft during an amphibious landing in North Africa.

The Night Watchman: Radar

During the Second World War, NRC was the centre of Canadian contributions to radar technology. With NRC's help, Canada installed the first operating radar system in North America – a coastal defence system near Halifax called the Night Watchman. A few years later, building on secret British war plans, NRC designed one of the first mass-produced radar systems to be manufactured in Canada.

In the late 1930s, NRC began to explore the possibility of detecting aircraft by electrical means. Meanwhile, the British had devised high-powered compact radar designs for an anti-aircraft system. The secret technology was brought to North America in 1940, and NRC used the plans to develop the GL Mark III C anti-aircraft radar system. Although it did not see action in Britain, this system was installed in Australia, South Africa, Russia and Canada.

NRC's success soon led to further radar design and production work. By 1945, NRC had developed about 30 different types of radar for various military purposes that helped the allies win the war.

Engineering novel vehicles on the ground and at sea

During the Second World War, Canada was asked to help design a new type of military vehicle for use in the snowy, muddy, swampy and rugged terrain of Europe. NRC researchers developed a prototype tracking system and specialized rubber that allowed the military vehicle to move easily across the snow.

The "Weasel," as it was called, had to perform in a wide range of conditions and withstand being parachuted from an aircraft. Nearly 15,000 Weasels were produced. Over the years, the vehicle's design has inspired many other all-terrain vehicles and has helped Arctic and Antarctic explorers in extreme conditions.

In the middle of the war, NRC scientists also collaborated with the British government on a far-out project to design and build a massive aircraft carrier... made of ice. The idea was to use ice reinforced with wood pulp (resulting in a new material called pykrete) to create a ship that would be virtually unsinkable and resistant to submarine attacks. The top secret ice-ship project was called "Habakkuk."

NRC scientists rushed to complete their research before winter's end in 1943, performing large-scale tests that included a huge slab of ice cut from frozen Lake Louise. They studied refrigeration systems and developed pykrete. Even though the British government cancelled the project in 1944, NRC's research into the properties of ice and pykrete remains very useful today and contributed to NRC's expertise in northern and snowy airfields.

Reducing Canada's reliance on others

During the war years, many imports from other countries were cut off, and Canada had to rely on itself for replacements. NRC scientists helped identify substitute, homegrown products to replace those that were not available during the war. Some important examples are Irish moss seaweed, canola oil, and new materials like artificial rubber and alternative magnesite.

Throughout the course of the Second World War, NRC scientists made invaluable contributions to our country and the war effort by carrying out innovative research into medicine, atomic energy, engineering, and homegrown alternatives to imports. Their efforts not only helped the war effort, but also had important implications that continue to affect the lives of Canadians.

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Where it All Started – Animation in the NRC labs

In the late 1960s, NRC's Nestor Burtnyk heard a Disney Studios animator speak about making cartoons. Less than a year later, Burtnyk had developed a new technique that would revolutionize the way animators create 3D graphics.

His work in developing "key-frame animation" techniques laid the groundwork for the sophisticated computer animation in cinematic feasts like Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter.

Putting the new technology to the test

The first experimental computer-animated film coming out of this new technique was Metadata in 1971, a collaboration between NRC, the National Film Board and artist Peter Foldes. 

Metadata was followed in 1973 by Hunger (La Faim), a 10-minute feature about world hunger. The film took a year and a half to create and in 1974 it became the first computer-animated movie nominated for an Oscar in the best short film category.  Hunger received other honours as well, including the Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973, and a flurry of international film awards.

One Frame at a time

Using this new "key frame animation" technique, NRC animators created isolated sketches of action at key intervals during an animated sequence. The software allowed animators to create sequences by providing only the key frames. The computer then worked out the in-between frames.

Automating the animation process through advanced computer technology cut down on the tedious manual work involved in traditional animation. Once the key frames were planned, the artist could prepare the picture "cells" by sketching images directly on the display.

Paving the way for the next generation of computer animation

The film Hunger inspired a generation of computer animators in Canada. NRC scientists gave lectures and held workshops, and others soon joined in. The result was the growth of computer animation courses and new companies across the country.

In 1966, Marceli Wein, a McGill University graduate, joined Burtnyk's unique computer graphics research project at NRC. At a conference on computer graphics at the University of Pennsylvania in July 1976, the pair explained their "skeleton control" techniques for enhancing motion dynamics in key-frame animation. Later that year, they went on to publish their paper in an Association for Computing Machinery journal.

Burtnyk and Wein have since been recognized as the fathers of computer animation technology in Canada. At the 1996 Festival of Computer Animation they were awarded trophies and letters from the Prime Minister in recognition of their individual contributions.

As an ultimate recognition of their pioneering work, the pair received a technical achievement award at the 1997 Academy Awards in Hollywood for their pioneering work in developing software techniques for computer-assisted key-framing for character animation.

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The Development of a Canadian Astronaut Program

In the summer of 1983, the National Research Council placed a help wanted ad in newspapers across Canada. NRC was looking for six people to develop experiments, perform public awareness activities, and undertake what would probably be the most exciting voyage of their lives – a journey into space.

More than 4,300 applications poured into the NRC from students, poets, journalists, engineers and scientists of all stripes, each wanting the chance to become a Canadian astronaut.

Space fever

In the early 1980s, Canadians of all ages were fascinated with Space. Canada's involvement with NASA's space shuttle program, coupled with the high-profile success of the Canadarm (developed under NRC leadership) on space shuttle Columbia flights in 1981 and 1982, fuelled this enormous public interest. Canadians wanted to know if they too would one day have the chance to fly in Space.

Canada's enthusiasm paid off when NASA was about to expand its Space program with projects like the International Space Station. Looking for international partners for this next phase of space exploration, NASA chose to continue its long history of successful space collaborations with Canada.   In 1982, Canada was informally invited to consider participating in the Space Station program and send a Canadian on a shuttle mission as a payload specialist.

When NRC placed its help wanted ad in Canadian newspapers, it sparked widespread media and public attention. Amid an overwhelming flurry of applications, NRC eventually selected six people for its new Canadian Astronaut Program Office in 1983: Marc Garneau, Bjarni Tryggvason, Steve MacLean, Ken Money, Roberta Bondar and Robert Thirsk.

A payload specialist is not an astronaut as we know them, but rather someone specially trained to fly and carry out experiments in Space. NRC developed two experiments to be carried out by the first Canadian payload specialist in Space: testing the NRC-invented Space Vision System for guiding the Canadarm, and studying Space adaptation syndrome – the condition that causes nausea and fatigue in astronauts when they first enter Space.

A change of plans

Before the new NRC employees even began their training in 1984, NASA surprised NRC by asking for a Canadian to fly on a mission well ahead of schedule. Timetables were thrown out the window and all efforts focused on getting the astronauts ready as quickly as possible. They underwent training that included lectures in astronomy, earth physics and space medicine, as well as physical testing of how they adapted to unusual motions, zero gravity, and high altitude flight. All the while, the astronauts made public appearances to satisfy the country's curiosity about space.

Marc Garneau was selected to be the first Canadian in Space. He would perform experiments on Space adaptation syndrome, the Space Vision System, how certain materials react to space exposure, a sun photometer, and recording a strange glow coming from the shuttle.

NRC rushed to prepare the experiments and make sure everything was cleared with NASA and compatible with the space shuttle – a seemingly impossible task that was successfully completed by the time Garneau went into Space aboard the Challenger shuttle on October 5, 1984.

Upon his return, Garneau was praised as a trail-blazer and hero and was compared to Canada's earliest explorers. He participated in a cross-country tour to address the media frenzy and promote Space science in Canada.

Continuing contributions

When the Challenger accident of January 1985 put a hold on the space shuttle flight schedule, Canadians used the opportunity to develop their space program further – working on the Space Vision System, planning experiments that would be conducted in space, developing technology to be used on future flights, and preparing their astronauts to become full-fledged mission specialists.

In 1989, the Canadian Astronaut Program "spun off" from NRC to form the core of the Canadian Space Agency. However, NRC continues to play an active research and development role in the program and the technology used in Space today, like the Canadarm 2 on the International Space Station.

Today, Canadians are full-fledged members of the international astronaut corps, contributing to the evolution of space programs and technology both in Canada and the world. To date, eight Canadian astronauts have flown on 11 shuttle flights.

The Canadian Space Agency's current team of six astronauts still includes three of the original NRC team – Steve MacLean, Bjarni Tryggvason and Robert Thirsk – who all continue to reap the rewards of answering a help wanted ad more than 20 years ago.

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The Science Behind our Athletes

A lot goes into making an Olympic athlete. Extraordinary skill and determination go a long way in fulfilling gold-medal dreams, but there is more to winning than hard work. Olympic athletes have their own teams of technological experts that help them get to the top of their sport.

For years, NRC has been improving athletic performance behind the scenes in its laboratories and wind tunnels. From bobsledding to speed skating, scientists know that success often depends as much on aerodynamics as on skill. For hockey players, it might be more about their stick than their stick-handling!

Famous faces in NRC's wind tunnels

Researchers at the NRC Institute for Aerospace Research in Ottawa study the effects of wind not only on vehicles and bridges, but also on athletes and their equipment, clothing and positioning. These researchers help athletes use the wind tunnel to check the aerodynamics of their body position, such as how rounded their shoulders are, or if their legs are held tightly together. 

In events where athletes are separated by only hundredths of a second, small aerodynamic adjustments can make the difference between winning a gold medal and going home empty-handed. Over the years, many great athletes have visited NRC's wind tunnels to save precious seconds while competing.

In the 1970s and 80s, Ken Read, Steve Podborski, Rob Boyd and other Canadian downhill skiers – known as the Crazy Canucks for their wild antics on the ski hill – polished up their aerodynamic skills in the NRC wind tunnels. Speed skaters Catriona LeMay Doan and Jeremy Wotherspoon tested the aerodynamic qualities of different suits in the NRC wind tunnel. Catriona later won a gold medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.

Most recently, members of Canada's national skeleton team, including gold, silver and bronze medalists used the wind tunnels to assess the aerodynamics of their sleds, suits and body positioning. In the wind tunnel, the athletes could feel like they were moving at 125 kilometres an hour and experiment with body position without worrying about falling off their sled.

Equipment and outfits

It's not only in the wind tunnels that science and technology help Canadian athletes. A lot of innovation goes into the equipment they wear and use while competing.

Before the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, a team of scientists at the NRC Integrated Manufacturing Technologies Institute used lasers on bobsled runners to improve their durability and speed. NRC also designed the Olympic torch for the 1988 winter games in Calgary.

A stronger hockey stick

A team of researchers at the NRC Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences is currently using the cutting-edge science of nanotechnology to make better hockey sticks with carbon nanotubes.

Carbon nanotubes are tiny hollow cylinders made entirely of the element carbon. They get their name from the fact that their diameters are about one nanometre across; one million times smaller than a millimetre. It is almost impossible to imagine things this small. To put it in perspective, if one of these nanotubes were as round as a piece of ordinary dental floss, the person using it would be about 1,500 km tall with teeth the size of Mt. Everest!

Despite their size, carbon nanotubes are 100 times stronger than steel and only one sixth of the weight. Adding carbon nanotubes to the composites used in today's hockey sticks can dramatically improve their durability, meaning lighter, tougher, and more flexible sticks that won't break at that crucial moment in the game.

Unfortunately, the current market price of nanotubes is more than 20 times that of gold. Only tiny amounts of carbon nanotubes are needed to see significant improvements in sporting good performance, making the benefits outweigh the extra cost. More widespread use of nanotubes in other areas will not come until the cost can be reduced substantially.

That is why NRC scientists are working to develop more cost-effective ways to produce carbon nanotubes and incorporate them into composites. Soon hockey players, golfers, cyclists, tennis players, and athletes in other sports will begin to experience the benefits of carbon nanotubes.

Through efforts like these, NRC is helping Canada's athletes become stronger competitors that look, feel and perform better on the international stage.

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World's first simulation-based brain surgery performed in Halifax

On Thursday, August 20th 2009, with the help of a virtual-reality neurosurgical simulator developed by NRC, Dr. David Clarke, staff neurosurgeon at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre (QEII) in Halifax successfully removed a brain tumour from a patient.

Using NRC technology, surgeons in Halifax performed a patient-specific rehearsal of a brain tumour resection in a virtual-reality environment, taking a picture of the patient's brain with MRI technology, and then rehearsing the removal of the tumour prior to successfully completing the actual surgery.

This system constitutes a world's first, allowing surgeons to tailor complex neurosurgical rehearsals to individual patients. To create a realistic simulation environment, researchers took a series of sophisticated MRI scans of the patient's brain, including its anatomy and critical regions. These images were then incorporated into the simulator to reflect back a highly accurate three dimensional representation of the patient's brain, allowing surgeons to see and experience what it would feel like to interact with that tissue. The simulator's unprecedented high-resolution haptics hardware allows surgeons to move and touch the virtual tissue of the brain; integrated software makes it behave as it would in actual surgery, creating a realistic learning and training environment for surgeons

Funded as a Phase-4 research project under the NRC Genomics and Health Initiative, researchers from across NRC (NRC-IMI, NRC-IBD and NRC-IIT) developed this breakthrough medical technology, working in close collaboration with a cross-Canada clinical advisory committee of leading neurosurgeons.

This virtual-reality neurosurgical simulator positions Canada at the forefront of global research and development of leading-edge medical devices and in the education of tomorrow's leading surgeons.

Pilots around the world have been using flight simulators for years to train and rehearse for their jobs to ensure the safety of passengers. With the help of this technology, surgeons can begin using the VR simulator as a teaching and rehearsal tool, ensuring the safety of their patients

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Physics Finds a Better Way to Target Cancer

These days, a cancer diagnosis is not automatically seen as a death sentence. Over the years, successful treatments have allowed cancer patients to carry on longer and more productive lives.

One such treatment is radiation therapy, which attacks cancerous tissue using ionizing radiation. Before doctors can use radiation treatments, however, they must first figure out the right dosage – and that's no easy task.

A careful balance of power and protection

Transferring the technology to treatment centres

NRC's dose calculation system was licensed for commercial use in 2000. NRC established a licensing partnership with MDS Nordion, a Canadian company specializing in radiation and other cancer diagnosis and treatment methods. The technology won approval from both Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Since 2002, it has been used in cancer clinics around the world.

Doctors must ensure they are delivering just the right amount of radiation during cancer treatments – it must be enough to kill the cancer cells but not too much which could harm the patient by destroying healthy tissue. Figuring out how much radiation is required involves meticulous and complex calculations based on the patient's anatomy, the size and depth of the cancer, the characteristics of the radiation beam and the body's radiation allowance, among other factors.

For years, medical physicists have used simplified models for the interaction of radiation with matter to figure out radiation dosages. Although often adequate, there are some situations where these models introduce significant errors. That all changed when physicists from the NRC Institute for National Measurement Standards devised software based on the Monte Carlo technique that lets cancer treatment centres accurately calculate radiation dosages in mere minutes for even the most complicated geometries.

More convenient calculations

The Monte Carlo technique uses statistical methods to follow the path of each ionizing particle from the radiation source until it is absorbed in the material of interest. NRC has been developing and using the Monte Carlo method since 1980, and it remains a leader in the field. NRC's Iwan Kawarakow created the new software program specifically optimized for calculating the radiation dose to patients. His new method was based on the Monte Carlo technique but ran at 100 times the speed of earlier Monte Carlo codes.

Perfecting the calculations and precise mathematical steps required to speed up the process of determining radiation dosages took years, but NRC eventually developed the necessary techniques.The software package it developed can be easily integrated into the sophisticated treatment planning systems medical professionals already use to visualize anatomy, see tumors and make decisions about how to treat them. The addition of the NRC software helps them accurately predict the radiation that will be delivered to the tumour and healthy tissue.

NRC's research activities have helped improve radiation treatment, providing cancer specialists with a speedy and highly-accurate means of helping their patients. Today, NRC continues to host medical physicists from around the world at training courses about radiation dose calculations.

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NRC Research Helps Build a Billion-Dollar Canola Business

The Canadian Prairies are blanketed with millions of acres of bright yellow canola fields. The crop is used in dozens of products, including cooking oil, mayonnaise and printing ink. Over the past five decades, researchers at NRC have transformed a minor crop with limited use into one of our country's most valuable assets.

Production of rapeseed lubricant dries up

Before the development of canola, the rapeseed plant was primarily used as an industrial lubricant. Its oil clings to metal, even in hot water and steam, making it ideal for steam engines and marine use. During the Second World War, Canada started producing its own rapeseed after shipments from Europe and Asia were cut off. But by 1950, production had slowed down to a driblet, and Canadian farmers questioned the crop's value.


Crop researchers at NRC's Prairie Regional Laboratory and Agriculture Canada then teamed up to create a better rapeseed plant – one that would be edible and nutritional, reducing the Prairies' dependence on wheat crops. Scientists from several Canadian organizations contributed to the national research initiative led by Dr. Keith Downey (Agriculture Canada), Dr. Baldur Steffanson (University of Manitoba) and Dr. Burton Craig (NRC).

Creating a new edible oil

By 1979, both Health Canada and European countries found that canola was safe for human consumption, but the United States withheld health approval of canola until 1985 when there was firm Canadian evidence that canola oil is risk-free and nutritious.

Rapeseed oil contains high levels of erucic acid that are not considered safe for human consumption. Studies of the oil linked it to troubling fat deposits around the hearts of test animals. But by 1964, the researchers were able to identify a strain of rapeseed with low erucic acid levels, allowing them to breed new varieties with more desirable nutritional properties.


A decade later, these new rapeseed varieties made up all five million acres of the crop grown in Canada. The new plants were named "canola," an abbreviation of "Canada" and "oil." They contained very low levels of the saturated fat associated with heart disease.

Continuing canola innovation

Scientists continued to improve canola. Further breeding developments eliminated unsavoury traits like sulfur-based glucosinolates and a low-fibre content that made the crops unsuitable for livestock feed. NRC researchers also established new plant cell and tissue culture techniques to speed canola breeding time.


Continued canola research led to a tougher crop more resistant to weed killers, improved crop yield and quality, reduced maturity time, as well as resistance to diseases. Today, canola is trademarked and distinguishable from rapeseed by its low erucic acid and glucosinolate characteristics.

Canada remains the global centre for canola science, growing more than 13 million acres of the made-in-Canada crop, mostly in the Prairies. The canola industry (including commercial crushers, farmers, and biotechnology researchers) contributes more than $2 billion a year to the Canadian economy, second only to Canadian wheat.

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Keeping Canada on Time

Imagine what life would be like if everyone followed a different time. How would we schedule appointments, run businesses or know when class starts? If it were not for time standards, our society would not work efficiently – we'd all be too confused!

The National Research Council is Canada's official time keeper. Since the 1950s, NRC has used atomic clocks to keep Canada on time and stay in sync with the rest of the world. Maintaining time standards is essential to keep global economies, navigation and communication running smoothly.

The atomic clock

In the late 1950s, NRC entered the atomic age of timekeeping when it completed one of the first atomic clocks in the world. Then, in 1975, NRC built the first cesium clock that could run continuously and also not require calibration with any external clock. At the time, this revolutionary clock was the most accurate and stable in the world.


These atomic clocks measure time by tracking the magnetic spinning of cesium atoms. These atoms spin 9,192,631,770 times per second rather than once a minute for the fastest hand on most mechanical clocks. The cesium clocks are prized for their incredible precision – they are accurate to about a second in a million years! Atomic time is even more accurate than the rotation of the earth, or classical astronomical time. This means that every so often, scientists add "leap seconds" to atomic time to compensate for the earth's slowing rotation.

What's the big deal?

The accuracy and stability of atomic clocks matters because so many of our communication and navigation systems rely on precise time measurements. For example, airplanes and ships rely on Global Positioning Systems that use time signals broadcast from atomic clocks on board satellites orbiting the earth.

Increasingly complex science requires levels of accuracy that might seem excessive in our everyday lives. But such accuracy is essential for generating precise measurements in diverse fields including radio astronomy, physics, spectroscopy, length and voltage measurements, electronics manufacturing and more.

Radio and television broadcasters have to coordinate their programming schedules to a standard time so audiences can tune into their favourite programs. Telecommunications systems rely on precise timing to operate switches that route signals through networks like the Internet.

Though we might not think about it, atomic clocks play a big role in many aspects of our daily lives. Without accurate time, our busy society would be much less efficient.

Cesium: the element that makes it all possible

Natural, non-radioactive cesium is renowned for its role in timekeeping because of the stability of the inner structure of this atom. A typical atomic clock uses only one gram of cesium to keep it running for an entire year!

Watching clocks around the world

Ever since the completion of its first atomic clocks in the late 1950s, Canada has been a leader in the regulation of international time standards. NRC's atomic clocks are used in conjunction with atomic clocks in the time laboratories around the world to create an internationally-accepted time scale called Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).

UTC replaced Greenwich Mean Time in 1972 and became the basis for official time in every country. Time zones around the world are expressed as positive or negative variations of UTC. For example, Eastern Standard Time is five hours behind UTC time, so it is written as UTC-5.

Coordinating clocks around the world is essential to keep economies, communications and navigational systems working properly. In aviation, UTC is used to avoid the confusion of frequently-changing time zones.

The future of atomic clocks

It's hard to believe that atomic clocks could be made even more accurate than they already are, but researchers at NRC are working on just that. Cesium beam atomic clocks have reached their performance limit, so scientists are developing the next generation of timekeepers – cesium fountain clocks.


Advanced laser technology will play a starring role in the new clocks that push the limits of precision. Cesium fountain clocks could eventually be 100 times better than our current atomic clocks!  Other atoms offer the prospect of even better timekeeping. For all of these advances, the challenge for timekeeping is to create a system that can run for decades at these improved accuracies.

By developing, using and coordinating atomic clocks around the world, organizations like NRC are tracking time more accurately than ever before – giving us even fewer excuses for being late!

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Concrete and Cement Science Still Stand Strong

In 1920, huge concrete structures across western Canada started crumbling from Winnipeg's sewers to Saskatoon's public buildings. When National Research Council (NRC) scientists were called in to figure out the problem, they found that sulphate waters were attacking the concrete in these structures, causing it to swell and break down.

Thorbergur Thorvaldson, a distinguished Saskatchewan University chemist and member of the team that investigated the western concrete problem, won international acclaim when he developed new sulphate-resisting cement used in concrete and a curing treatment to protect against corrosion.

This early work in concrete research is just one example of the interesting and innovative concrete and cement science research still underway at NRC today. This research spans everything from monitoring some of the tallest buildings and longest bridges in the world to warming the ground beneath our feet.

Studying Canada's biggest buildings

The construction industry relies on the expertise of NRC's engineers, architects, chemists and other scientists whose work leads to better technologies and important structural modeling. Their research ensures the safety of Canada's buildings and bridges.

The CN Tower, for example, was built to withstand a devastating earthquake and winds of 400 kilometres an hour. In the event that the world's tallest tower does collapse, it is designed to tip over into Lake Ontario. Though NRC was not involved in the design or construction of the CN Tower, NRC researchers have monitored lightning strikes on the tower which happen about 75 times each year.

NRC science and engineering helps revise national building codes. These regulations are crucial for protecting the public and preventing horrific disasters by ensuring that buildings are constructed to be safe. 

Researchers can also use sophisticated 3D computer models to make calculations about wind and other factors that influence the design of increasingly big and complex buildings.

Building safer bridges

At PEI's Confederation Bridge, NRC, other government organizations and universities are involved in the most comprehensive study of bridge performance ever undertaken. The bridge is equipped with 500 strain-measuring devices, 450 thermal sensors, 28 ice-load panels, 76 vibration sensors and underwater sonar equipment that will feed an incredible amount of data to scientists for the next 20 years.

The Confederation Bridge is a 13-kilometre drive that links Prince Edward Island to the Canadian mainland. It is made up of 44 concrete spans and piers planted in 35-metre deep water. It is the longest bridge over ice-prone waters in the world, making its structural stability particularly challenging.

NRC has also created software to predict the lifespan and maintenance of bridges. These predictions are made by studying how reinforcing steel corrodes and the damage that accumulates on the concrete bridge decks. This tool will help engineering contractors diagnose problems and plan repairs to bridges.

Bringing an old building material into the future

When NRC researchers set out to melt the snow and ice on loading docks, roads and bridges, they ended up developing concrete that can conduct electricity and do far more than keep driveways clean.

Conductive concrete can be used not only for deicing roads, runways and bridges, but also for grounding electrical charges and keeping your toes warm in the winter through radiant floor heating.

Concrete may be one of the oldest and most durable building materials, but cement chemistry is still a modern science. In the future, scientists and researchers from around the world will continue to discuss new techniques and the next generation of durable cement systems.

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Innovative Devices Improve the Lives of the Disabled

For many decades, National Research Council scientists have developed practical and innovative aids for people with disabilities. These devices have helped improve the everyday lives of people with visual, verbal, physical and other disabilities.

Navigating through a sighted world

Blind since the age of four, James Swail spent almost 40 years at NRC developing devices to increase the mobility and job skills of the blind. He was determined to make a personal contribution in the struggle of blind people to achieve an independent way of life in a sighted world.

Among his countless inventions are a sensor for detecting light sources, sound beacons to identify where objects are located, voice synthesizers for telephones and electric thermometers with readouts that can be heard or felt. 

Perhaps this NRC inventor is best known for developing a better white cane. White canes are used by visually impaired people to feel and avoid obstacles in their path and as means of identifying themselves. But in certain situations, like crowded classrooms or restaurants, long canes can get in the way or become difficult to store. To help reduce inconvenience, Swail devised a four-section collapsible cane that could be easily folded and kept in a pocket or purse when not being used.

Swail also developed an alternative to the cane for use in crowded situations where canes are not practical, like parties or busy stores. His ultrasonic obstacle detector used radar to locate obstacles in a blind person's path. When a person or object was detected, the device's handle vibrated to alert the user.

Several devices have been created to help the visually impaired use technology, including a pocket-sized electronic calculator for the blind, a device to allow blind computer programmers to read punch cards and a synthetic speech output for blind computer users.

Maximizing mobility

The electric wheelchair is probably the best-known mobility aid for persons with physical disabilities. The first practical motorized wheelchair was developed at NRC by George Klein in the 1950s to help severely disabled veterans returning from the Second World War. Further testing with paraplegic and quadriplegic led to the development of ways to controlling the wheelchair with a finger, chin or head, giving patients the opportunity to experience an exciting new independence.

NRC also designed a "5-wheel unicycle" to help those with mobility limitations get around their homes and workplaces. Depending on a person's disability, the device could be adapted with different seating or standing apparatuses – like a chair for sitting, a saddle seat for people with cerebral palsy or a board that allows the user to move around while standing. Users "drove" the vehicle by pressing on a hoop that surrounded their body. In office and home settings, the unicycle was well-suited to working at benches or countertops and allowed users to be at eye level with a standing person.

NRC also developed a convertible bed/chair that allowed for better comfort and easier handling of extremely disabled people.

Communication and recreation

While most aids for people with disabilities are designed to help with their most basic needs like movement and communication, NRC also recognized the often-overlooked importance of leisure activities. This is why researchers also devised several recreational aids, like a device to turn the pages of a book.

Perhaps the most frustrating disabilities are those that restrict a person from expressing themselves or communicating. To help overcome some of these difficulties, NRC started the COMHANDI research program in the 1960s to develop communication aids for the disabled.

One such aid was a mechanical pointer system for non-verbal cerebral palsy children. By using a joystick or switches, the child could communicate by selecting symbols from a display board. Because communication was done through symbols, this device could be used by children who were not able to read or write.

In 1980, NRC created two electronic games that could be played without requiring a great deal of manual dexterity. Both "Checktronics" (an electronic checkers game) and "Steeplechase" (designed for younger players) could be easily operated by pressing on large switches to control playing pieces represented by small LED lights on the board. 

"Checktronics" and "Steeplechase" provided many people with physical disabilities an opportunity to play board games without assistance for the first time, leading to a sense of independence and accomplishment, and most importantly, a lot of fun.

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Eliminating E. coli for Safer Food and Water

The safety of our food and water is a serious concern for Canadians. We need to know that the food we eat and the water we drink to stay healthy won't accidentally make us ill.

Each year, more than five million people around the world die from diseases caused by unsafe drinking water and over two million deaths result from water-related diarrhea. 

That's why researchers at the National Research Council have been working to keep E. coli, a dangerous food- and water-borne bacterium, from entering our food or water supply.


A common contaminant

Escherichia coli is a naturally-occurring bacterium that lives in the intestines of cows. Although it causes no problems for cattle, the E. coli O157:H7 strain of the bacterium produces a toxin that is dangerous to humans. If ingested, E. coli causes cramping, diarrhea and in rare cases, kidney failure or even death.

When cows carrying the bacteria are slaughtered, E. coli can sometimes get into the food supply. People who eat undercooked ground beef are at risk of becoming ill from E. coli contamination. Since contaminated meat looks and smells normal, it is important that all ground beef be thoroughly cooked to destroy E. coli bacteria. Unpasteurized milk can also become contaminated if a cow's udder or the milking equipment has traces of bacteria.

Water contamination can be caused by run-off from nearby fields that have been treated with manure containing E. coli bacterium. This is believed to be the cause of a tragic case of tainted water in Walkerton, Ontario in 2000.  

E. coli research began 20 years ago when scientists realized people were getting sick from the E. coli O157:H7 strain present in undercooked hamburger meat. They discovered the source of the bacteria was inside the cows themselves. In the mid-1980s, NRC scientists identified a unique antigenic marker in the bacterium which identifies the pathogenic strain of E. coli, making it possible to detect the bacterium. This discovery proved handy years later as scientists worked to get rid of the bacteria altogether.

Stopping E. coli contamination before it starts

Because E. coli bacteria originate inside a cow's digestive system, scientists thought vaccinating cows against E. coli could stop the bacteria before they had the chance to infect humans.

Building on their discovery of the antigenic marker that identifies E. coli, NRC researchers discovered that there were other, non-pathogenic bacteria (bacteria that don't cause disease) that carried markers identical or chemically similar to E. coli O157:H7. When mice were immunized with some of these non-pathogenic bacteria, the bacteria produced antibodies that prevented the mice from becoming infected with E. coli.

While exploring the idea of using this discovery to create a vaccine against E. coli, scientists realized they would face resistance from farmers who are wary about mass-immunizations of their cattle. So researchers started working on a feed-based delivery system.

The idea was to express an E. coli O157:H7 – specific antibody in plants and then incorporate the plant-based antibody into the cows' food. Once inside a cow's digestive system, the antibody attaches to any E. coli bacterium it encounters, preventing it from attaching to the lining of the cow's stomach and multiplying.

Because it would be administered through food instead of vaccination, this new method of eliminating E. coli from cows was more readily accepted by farmers and the public.

Detecting contamination to avoid disasters

Despite these promising efforts to eliminate E. coli, more work must be done before an effective product becomes available. In the meantime the bacteria continue to thrive and have the potential to contaminate our food and water. During the tragic events in Walkerton, a whole town drank dirty water for days before being warned of the danger. By that time, the damage had already been done. Through examples like this, it's easy to see why quick detection of water contamination is essential for public safety. 

The traditional culture method of water testing involves filtering bacteria from water samples, cultivating them in petri dishes, then counting the bacteria. Although this method can detect E. coli, it is prone to errors and does not detect some other potentially lethal water-borne pathogens. What's more, the process takes two days to complete, which is far too slow when it comes to saving people from drinking deadly water.

NRC scientists have been working on using DNA chips, also called "biochips" or DNA microarrays, to quickly detect water-borne pathogens, including E. coli, with almost no error. The process involves coating a chip with the DNA of a known pathogen, then applying DNA from a water sample to the same chip. If the DNA from the sample bonds to the original DNA on the chip, it means the water sample contains the same pathogen that was originally on the chip. 

Eventually, these chips will include the DNA for many different pathogens, allowing detection at very low levels in the water. The method is fast and affordable, important factors for improving water testing and safety.

For two decades, NRC scientists have been working to eliminate E. coli and detect dangerous contaminants before they reach humans. This research is essential for ensuring the safety of our food and water in the 21st century.

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Saving Survivors by Finding Fallen Aircrafts

Before the 1960s, wilderness airplane crashes usually ended in tragedy. Even if they were not seriously injured during the crash, survivors faced a long wait before they could be rescued, often succumbing to starvation or exposure to the elements before they could be saved.

Rescue crews had a hard time finding crash survivors obscured by brush and snow. They were forced to fly dangerously low, searching by eyesight alone for an SOS or signs of smoke. Often, rescue crews flew in the same dangerous conditions that caused the original accident, causing many rescuers to face the same fate as the crash victims.

For one National Research Council engineer, however, this harsh reality was simply unacceptable. So Harry Stevinson invented the Crash Position Indicator to help rescue crews find downed aircraft quickly and safely – a device that would save the lives of crash victims and rescue crews alike.

Tired of airplane rescue tragedies

Harry Stevinson grew up hearing tragic tales of rescue missions gone wrong, and he wanted to do something about the problem. Drawing from his extensive knowledge of radios, Stevinson knew it was possible to distinguish the direction from which radio waves came. He decided the solution to finding downed aircraft would be a radio beacon on each aircraft that could indicate where the plane had crashed.

His plan required that the radio beacon survive the impact of a plane crash, as well as any fires, explosion or water immersion that followed – and of course, it had to keep working through all hazards.

Unfortunately, as determined as Stevinson was to improve wilderness rescue attempts and develop his radio beacon idea, the project had to be put on hold when the Second World War began.

Renewed determination to save lives

After the war, in 1946, Stevinson was studying gliders at the NRC Flight Research Lab. During test flights, gliders would descend from high altitudes while Stevinson recorded data about how the aircraft "handled" in different situations.

While these tests were ongoing, a jet fighter happened to crash. Stevinson and his team watched helplessly as the rescue crew that was searching for the lost plane also crashed into the bush. To Stevinson, it was clear that had a radio beacon been installed on the downed jet the task of locating the crash site would have been much easier and safer for the rescue crews. Once again, he was determined to create a radio beacon for downed aircraft.

Developing a crash-proof radio beacon was no easy task, however. The final device needed to meet some tough requirements: it had to ride on the host aircraft in an inactive state for indefinite periods, but be ready to immediately start to work in the event of a crash; it had to survive any conceivable crash by falling clear as the aircraft crumpled; and it had to turn itself on automatically, so that rescuers could find the location of the crash quickly. In addition to these basic requirements, it had to be lightweight and low-cost.

The Crash Position Indicator

The first Crash Position Indicator was a "tumbling aerofoil" – a flat, lightweight shape that would tumble gently through the air in the same way a leaf falls slowly to the ground. The beacon's radio equipment was surrounded by shock-absorbing material that both protected it and allowed it to float above water. And of course, it was also fire-resistant.

In the end, Stevinson built a device that combined the radio transmitter and antenna in one compact package. It was light and durable, designed to attach to the tail of an aircraft, then separate and curve away from the plane during a crash. A spring-loaded latch that held the beacon to the airplane would release on impact, allowing the beacon to be carried safely away from the plane by the rushing wind.

Stevinson's device was tested in situations where searchers did not know the location of the fallen aircraft. In every test, searchers found their target in less than two hours – an unbelievable improvement in search and rescue abilities.

By not giving up on his goal of designing a radio beacon for locating aircraft, NRC's Harry Stevinson improved aviation safety and saved lives around the world.

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Science Improves Crime-Busting Techniques

Today, more than ever, science and crime-fighting go hand-in-hand. Law enforcement officials rely on sophisticated equipment and techniques to find tiny clues, detect dangerous situations and prevent criminal activity.

That's why the National Research Council has worked for decades to design and improve crime-busting technologies through its own research and through collaborations like the Canadian Police Research Centre with the RCMP.

Pointing the finger at leftover prints

Identifying fingerprints is probably the oldest forensics science technique, but it's seen many advances over the years. The latest technologies make it possible to find fingerprints in places never before possible, for example on human bodies where a victim's own sweat and oils used to make it incredibly difficult to distinguish fingerprints on the skin.

Scientists used to remove fingerprints from the body by coating them with iodine and then transferring them to a slide – a method that allowed for many errors. However, former NRC scientist Dr. Della Wilkinson has developed a new fingerprint dye which contains a solvent that works on human skin. 

Her technique involves exposing the skin to iodine fumes then spraying another chemical on top. The interaction of the two chemicals makes fingerprints appear blue on the skin, eliminating the need to transfer the prints to a separate slide and avoiding damaging the evidence.

Another NRC scientist, Dr. John Watkin, worked on another technique based upon the fact that fingerprints glow under laser light. Because it is not practical to bring lasers to crime scenes to search for prints, Watkin developed a portable fingerprint lamp, called the Lumalite, which uses another kind of intense light to make fingerprints appear. The Lumalite points out other vital crime-scene evidence such as fibres and biological fluids.

Sniffing out terrorists and traffickers

While bomb sniffers are standard airport security equipment today, this wasn't always the case. In fact, the technology used to create the first one, wasn't even intended to be a terrorism-fighting tool.

In the early 1960s, an NRC team was monitoring pesticide drift from aerial spraying intended to kill off the damaging spruce budworm that was ravaging Canada's eastern forests. An NRC scientist created a portable sniffing device that could detect and identify pesticide vapours using gas chromatography.

At the same time, global air travel was plagued by hijackings and bomb threats. Like pesticides, explosives leave tell-tale vapours that can be detected with the right equipment. NRC modified its pesticide sniffer into the first portable bomb sniffer, called the Explosives Vapour Detector (EVD). After successful tests during Canadian visits from the Pope, Queen Elizabeth II and the US president, EVDs became standard equipment in airport security around the world, especially after the 1985 Air India bombing that killed 329 passengers.

Later, the chemi cal-sniffing technology was adapted once again to detect the presence of narcotics after Revenue Canada grew concerned about drugs being sent through the postal system. The Trace Narcotics Detector could efficiently detect unseen traces of illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin on the outside of letters and packages in the mail.

Detecting and beating bioterrorism

In recent years, the threat of bioterrorism – using diseases like anthrax or smallpox to attack people – has become a major concern. Scientists the world over are looking for ways to detect such biological agents in the environment and create vaccines to protect us from their deadly effects.

An NRC spin-off company developed systems to rapidly detect and identify chemical and biological warfare agents. The technology can be used for military and civil defence or medical and environmental applications. Miniature portable biosensing devices can be used to detect and identify bioterrorism in real time, allowing officials to respond quickly and appropriately to potential threats.

NRC is also working with a team of Swedish, British, and American scientists on a new vaccine against Francisella tularensis, a highly-infectious biological agent found naturally in Canada that causes tularemia, a severe and potentially-deadly disease.

Protecting paper money and easing paperwork

NRC has created many tools to help police solve crimes, such as the geographic profiling computer software that helps track down suspected serial killers based on the locations of crime scenes. In 2002, the technology was used in the United States to help investigate sniper attacks in Maryland and Virginia.

When it comes to fighting crime, NRC isn't just involved in the high-profile projects like bomb-sniffing and fighting bioterrorism. It is also behind developments that may seem small, but make a big difference.

For example, NRC invented the anti-counterfeiting technology that protects Canadian paper money. Using thin-film technology, NRC researchers created tamper-proof colour-changing patches that cannot be removed or reproduced with normal printing or photographic techniques, foiling the efforts of criminals who want to make bogus bills. The same technology is used to protect driver's licenses, passports, cheques and credit cards around the world.

Edge of Light (EOL) technology developed by NRC helps police and forensic investigators inspect tiny surfaces. EOL is used during counterfeit and forgery investigations, handwriting examinations, and other authentication activities.

NRC-supported technology even helps ease the overwhelming paperwork burden faced by police. The paperwork management system reduced the time to process an arrest from three hours to only 20 minutes, and made the complicated process of sending information to courthouses much simpler.

Scientists have developed and improved the equipment and techniques used in nearly all aspects of crime-busting. Their efforts are a great help to the dedicated officials that enforce the law and protect Canadians every day.

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NRC Science Protects a Patriotic Symbol

The Canadian flag we know today was born in 1965. After a lengthy search and much debate, the red and white design with a single red maple leaf in the centre became our national flag, affectionately known as "The Maple Leaf."

Soon after the Maple Leaf began flying, however, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson grew concerned that the flags on federal government buildings seemed to be fading unequally and were not the same shade of red. An effort led by the Department of National Defence to ensure all Canadian flags met the same standards became an issue of national importance, with many government departments getting involved in the project. National Research Council scientists stepped in to help make sure the Maple Leaf looked its best.

Setting the standard for a national symbol

Canada's flag is a single piece of fabric. This means the red sections of the flag are dyed onto the fabric, making fading a concern. Depending on the fabric used and the length of time spent outdoors, early flags quickly became discoloured – white areas turned grey and red sections turned everything from pink and orange to many shades of rust and red!

Colour experts at NRC specified the exact shade of red for the Canadian flag by using a research-grade spectrophotometer (which measures light and colour) to determine the exact colour of a sample flag provided by Prime Minister Pearson. Researchers then proposed specific fade-resistant printing dyes and nylon taffeta fabric for the flag to make sure future versions would look the same and fade more slowly and evenly.

Determining details

Canada still has a National Flag Committee with members from industry, textile testing labs and various government departments. The committee regularly reviews Canada's flag standards to make sure our national emblem is always at its best.

The Interdepartmental Study Group on the Canadian Flag laid out standards for more than just the flag's colours and fabric. When the "Standard for the National Flag of Canada" was published in 1966, the committee had outlined specifications for everything including dimensions, grommets, material, cordage, sewing thread, wooden toggles, brass clips, laundering and flag disposal procedures.

There are actually three different sets of standards for the flag: one for outdoor use, one for indoor use and one for flags that are to be used only once.

In 1970, NRC adjusted the flag's colours once again to meet new international standards.

Reducing wear and tear

Flags are exposed to some pretty harsh conditions while outdoors. Rain, high winds and strong ultraviolet rays from the sun can damage fabric and fade colours. In 1965, newspapers reported that the flags on Parliament Hill needed to be replaced every two days!

NRC researchers have spent a lot of time testing how Canada's flag stands up to different conditions. To test how different red dyes faded, six flags were hung on a clothesline atop an NRC building in Ottawa in 1965. Passers-by were rather puzzled by the odd arrangement of flags, which were later moved to traditional flag poles.

More recently, wear and tear tests have been conducted in NRC's wind tunnels to determine which fabrics and stitching methods were most durable. Researchers also looked at which materials required the least amount of wind to be able to fly – they called this the "flag flutter frequency."

Thanks to tests like these, scientists have been able to extend outdoor flag life to at least 30 days – a dramatic improvement over the mere two days Canada's earliest Maple Leaf flags lasted in the elements.

Fixing national colours in other countries

NRC's flag research has helped other countries protect their national colours as well.   After setting the standards for the Maple Leaf, NRC's researchers were approached by other government officials to conduct similar research for the flag of the Bahamas.

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Streamlining the Steam Locomotive

At the start of the 1930s, the National Research Council had just finished building its first wind tunnel. The Ottawa facility joined the ranks of the world's best wind tunnels and soon became an invaluable research tool for Canada's top scientists. The facility was completed just in time for NRC to take on a major project with Canadian National Railway (CNR) – a project that would make tracks around the world.

Trouble on the tracks

In 1931, railway engineers reported that smoke from the stacks of steam locomotives was getting into cabins, making it almost impossible for drivers to see.   The situation was becoming a serious safety hazard.

The problem was caused, in part, by the increased number of bridges and tunnels along train routes that forced trains to adopt shorter smoke stacks. When traveling at low speeds, the shorter stacks couldn't throw smoke high enough into the air to clear the top of the train, so it wound up in the cabin instead.

Drivers could try to remedy the problem by adjusting their speed to move the smoke out of the cabin, but this required constant changes in speed that were simply too difficult and time consuming. Concerned about safety, CNR officials turned to NRC for a permanent solution to the problem.

Clearing the smoke

Solving the smoke problem was no easy task. Nothing could be done about the prevalence of bridges and tunnels or the necessity for shorter smoke stacks. The only option left was to modify the shape of trains. However, the modified design would still have to meet various requirements, such as providing easy access to working parts.

NRC's engineers used the brand new wind tunnel to test different locomotive designs. They started with existing models to gather baseline measurements for comparison. The engineers then studied a wide variety of new designs, developing better and better wooden models until they had created an entirely new exterior shape for steam locomotives.

The final NRC design not only resolved the smoke problems that had initiated the testing, but it was also more fuel efficient than previous models, reducing air resistance by 33 per cent while continuing to meet railway safety and design requirements.

CNR approved the NRC design and recruited Montreal Locomotive Works to build models of the "semi-streamlined" locomotive, as it was called. CNR eagerly unveiled the new models in 1936 and used them in numerous promotions over the next few years in an effort to boost passenger rail travel during the Depression. The sleek, modern appearance of the new locomotives made them an attractive marketing tool.

A world-famous train fit for royalty

NRC's streamlined train design was featured at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. The locomotive was celebrated alongside exciting new innovations including television and nylon. 

NRC's semi-streamlined locomotive was soon the subject of international attention.   From the United States, Europe and even the Far East, requests for photos poured in and the design was discussed in journals and technical publications. Big American railways copied the design, though NRC was not able to fight them in patent infringement lawsuits. Inevitably, Canada's other rail company, Canadian Pacific Railway, built trains in the same style.

In 1939, both CNR and CPR's streamlined locomotives were selected to pull the Royal train cross-country during a visit from King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth. The trains were painted a regal blue and adorned with the Royal insignia for the occasion.

By 1939, NRC had transformed the locomotive from a smoky safety hazard into a sleek and streamlined engineering showcase worthy of international admiration and fit for royalty.

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Winning the War against Infant Meningitis

Meningitis is a deadly disease that affects 400 people a year in Canada. The disease causes membranes around the brain and spinal cord to become inflamed, leading to permanent brain damage, deafness, or even death. Of those that develop meningitis, one in four die within 48 hours and half of them are younger than five years old. The most common strain of the disease, Meningitis-C, is responsible for 50 per cent of cases.

For three decades, Dr. Harry Jennings, a carbohydrate chemist at the National Research Council and his team, worked to develop an innovative new Meningitis-C vaccine – an accomplishment that will save millions of children's lives around the world.


A vaccine that works

When Jennings began his meningitis research in the 1970s, the only vaccine that existed for the disease was not reliable. It did not completely control the disease and required repeated vaccinations. Most disappointingly, it was not effective in infants, a high-risk group for developing meningitis.

This early vaccine was a type of polysaccharide vaccine. Polysaccharides are groups of carbohydrates composed of long chains of simple sugar molecules. While collaborating with an American scientist in the 1970s, Jennings learned that polysaccharide vaccines are not effective in infants, which is one reason why the existing meningitis vaccine did not protect them.

However, infant immune systems do respond very well to proteins. Jennings and his team determined that if they linked the polysaccharide to a protein in order to form what is called a conjugate vaccine, they could effectively trick an infant's immune system into accepting the meningitis vaccine. They did just that by linking the Group C meningococcal polysaccharide to a related protein vaccine against infant tetanus to create a new conjugate vaccine that stimulates the production of meningitis antibodies in infants.

The long road to global success

Conjugate vaccines have been developed in NRC's labs to fight meningitis caused by three major strains of Neisseria meningitidis (groups A, B and C). The Meningitis-C vaccine is now marketed worldwide after having been shown to be effective in infants and adults in a vaccination program involving 12 million people in the United Kingdom.

This NRC team's work resulted in the first published patent on a conjugate vaccine and paved the way for other vaccines to be created in the same way. It was a long time before the conjugate meningitis vaccine was available to the public. Jennings encountered many scientific and political obstacles before the vaccine was commercially produced in 1996. But with the same perseverance that propelled him to spend decades researching and developing the vaccine, Jennings' efforts finally paid off.

Thirty years of hard work at NRC resulted in an infant meningitis vaccine that is safe, effective and easily administered with the potential to save millions of lives. Not only will sales of the vaccine benefit the Canadian economy, but preventing the disease by immunizing infants and expectant mothers will also reduce health care cost associated with meningitis.

Vaccine development in the future

Jennings and his team continue their efforts to eliminate the entire family of meningococcal diseases by continuing to develop a vaccine against Meningitis-B. They are also studying the possibility of applying the same technology to develop a vaccine to fight cancer. 


Important developments in vaccine technology have gone a long way in re-affirming the importance of disease prevention. As well, the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria indicates the importance of continuing vaccine research to protect millions of lives.

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Bomb Sniffers Battle Terrorist Threats

Long before fictional forensic investigators with fancy crime-busting gadgets became popular entertainment, the Canadian Mounties were using some of the world's best detection equipment to sniff out hidden weapons.

Developed by a soft-spoken NRC scientist, the portable bomb sniffer became the standard of explosives detection in international aviation security. But the technology wasn't originally intended to be used as a terrorism-fighting tool.

From the forest to the airport

In the early 1960s, the spruce budworm was ravaging Eastern forests in Canada. Chemist Lorne Elias led an NRC team that was monitoring pesticide drift from the aerial spraying against the budworm. Elias designed a portable device that could chemically "sniff" pesticide vapours using gas chromatography. The technique measured the composition of the evaporating chemicals to reveal a precise profile of the substance. But the project didn't end there.


At this time, global air travel was plagued by hijackings and bomb threats. Like pesticides, explosives also leave tell-tale vapour and particle trails that, with the right equipment, can be detected and identified. When Canadian aviation security officials learned of NRC's new chemical-sniffing invention, they turned to Elias for security help.   He soon set to work developing a way to test vapours from dynamite, TNT and other explosives.

At that time, there existed some commercial devices that could pinpoint dynamite vapour, but none were as effective as the techniques developed at NRC. Elias soon came up with an advanced portable Explosives Vapour Detector called the EVD-1.

Putting the EVD to the test

In 1984, the RCMP used prototypes of the new bomb sniffer during official visits to Canada from the Pope, Queen Elizabeth II and U.S. President Ronald Reagan.   During the Papal visit, a detector went off while the Pope's baggage was being cleared by Canadian security officials - one of the Pope's bodyguards had packed his revolver in his luggage!

Canadian airports also quickly set up EVDs following the 1985 Air India bombing that killed 329 passengers en route to Bombay, in the hopes of preventing another tragedy.

In 1989, the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted a convention to deal with a new threat – the so-called "plastic" explosives which don't emit any vapour. The ICAO convention called for all plastic explosives manufactured by member countries to carry a distinctive vapour marking agent. From the beginning, the EVD could detect traces of 2,3-dimethyl-2,3-dinitrobutane (known as DMNB), and this organic compound became the taggant that identifies plastic explosives.

Improving airport security technology


After the success of the EVD, Elias and his research team next adapted an even faster bomb-sniffing technique called Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS). The system samples and analyzes electrically-charged particles, called ions, which are broken down from suspected drugs and explosives. IMS is now a standard feature of airport security.

Both the EVD and IMS technologies are used worldwide. Their development by an NRC chemist made Canada a global player in trace explosive detection.

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Extending Canada's Role in Space Exploration

A prolific inventor, NRC engineer George Klein's seemingly endless list of innovations spans nearly every field from atomic energy and aeronautic engineering to medical research and Space science.

Perhaps Klein's greatest invention was the Storable Tubular Extendable Member (or STEM, for short). Originally designed for military uses, STEM became an invaluable piece of space hardware and helped put Canada on the map for Space exploration.

Rolling out an idea

In the early 1950s, Klein was working at the NRC flight research section to develop a new military radio beacon. It needed to withstand being dropped from an airplane at a great height onto difficult terrain. The new beacon also required an antenna large enough to send radio signals across great distances.

While leisurely rolling a cigarette one night, Klein was struck with the idea that would later become the STEM. He realized that a rolled piece of paper was stronger than a flat one and that once rolled, the paper could be extended into a cone shape. He adapted the idea using heated metal and created a device that would allow a radio beacon to be dropped to the ground, unroll itself and extend an antenna. 

Once Klein had created a system of gears to guide the metal tube's shape as it rolled out of the case, STEM was born. The concept was similar to that of a concave steel measuring tape which can be coiled up into a small case and then unrolled when needed to extend. Klein's design was so novel that it was described as a new form of linear motion.

What comes down, must go up

In the late 1950s, STEM technology went from being dropped to the ground from airplanes to being shot into space on board satellites. After hearing about STEM, an engineer from De Havilland visited NRC. His company was building Canada's first satellite and was looking for a solution to the problem of communicating with Earth. In the engineer's eyes, STEM was the answer.   Spar Aerospace, the company that would later engineer the Canadarm, was contracted to develop the STEM technology further.

It soon became clear that STEM's niche would be in Space. Its small size and ability to extend even in very tight spaces made it perfectly suited to the demands of Space engineering. It had numerous applications, including astronaut attachment systems, solar panel extension booms, altitude-sensing devices, and, of course, antenna arrays. STEM was soon found on the world's most important satellites and spacecraft.

STEM in Space

Acting as a boom for scientific instruments, STEM traveled to the Moon on the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions, and collected data from under the Moon's surface. In 1973, STEM helped Soviet satellites relay information on their way to Mars.

Canada's first satellite, Alouette I, was launched in 1962 with four STEM antennae on board to help study the ionosphere. In the 1970s, Alouette II and Canada's ISIS satellites used STEMs. The technology also flew on the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft that carried the first Americans into Space. STEM was used as a high-frequency antenna to solve communication problems and interruptions during orbit while ensuring quick communication with mission control once the capsules were back on Earth.

A later adaptation of the technology, called BI-STEMs traveled on board the Voyager shuttle and can be found on the famous Hubble telescope. Some of the most important and impressive knowledge we have about the far reaches of Space had been transmitted by Hubble thanks to STEM technology.

STEM's success demonstrated Canada's ability to make important contributions to Space exploration during the Cold War Space Race. It was a key factor in netting Canada the chance to develop the Canadarm project – a robotic arm used on the shuttles and International Space Station to manipulate large objects like satellites in space.

STEM on Earth

STEM's innovative design makes it useful both in Space and on the ground. Some of its more earthly uses include: a mast for elevating antennae, remote inspection, elevated emergency floodlighting, tripods for surveying equipment and deploying emergency lights on top of vehicles.  

For his invention with so many uses, George Klein received neither fame nor fortune. Nonetheless, in 1970 Klein said he was pleased to have made such a significant contribution to the creation of an industry in Canada.

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Space Vision System Helps Astronauts See in Space

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield described Space as "a surreal place to work, with no familiar landmarks or objects to give perspective and depth." Yet for years, humans have been launching satellites, performing Space walks and building Space stations despite the challenges of working in Space.

Astronauts are able to do all this thanks in part to the Space Vision System – a tool developed by the National Research Council to help astronauts guide the Canadarm.

Controlling the Canadarm

At first, astronauts operated the Canadarm using camera images and eyesight. Precisely maneuvering the arm by watching a 9-inch screen or peering through a tiny window into a cargo bay 30 feet away was no easy task! NRC realized astronauts needed a better system to control the Canadarm, especially during complex tasks.

The technology that became the Space Vision System evolved from tracking vehicles during NRC crash tests: High speed cameras would record a car as it crashed into a test barrier. Both the car and the fixed background behind it were set up with black and white targets on them. The vehicle's movement was tracked by a computer program that compared the two sets of targets to calculate factors like speed and direction.

NRC scientists decided to try using the same method to help control the Canadarm. By 1978 they had adapted the technique to work with the television system on the Space Shuttle and called it the Space Vision System (SVS). Marc Garneau tested the new device on the 1984 Challenger mission by recording the launch and movement of a satellite with SVS targets on it.

The system proved successful, with only a few small problems during the first test when a target was briefly blocked by the Canadarm and the view was briefly obscured by reflection from the Sun.

Making the real deal

After the first successful test, work began on a complete SVS that could be installed on the Space Shuttle. It would be tested by Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean on a later flight. In the 1980s, NRC astronauts worked on the flight-ready model of the system – designing experiments, writing an operator's manual, developing computer and video simulators and creating a computer database that would show the Canadarm operator data from the SVS.

They also had to create the Canadian Target Assembly – the practice equipment that MacLean would manipulate with the Canadarm during the new SVS's first experiment. Engineers worked to develop a target dot system for Space like the ones used to track crash tests. Contrasting targets were designed with white dots on black backgrounds and vice versa.

NRC's thin film group (the same group that had developed anti-counterfeiting technology for Canadian money) created the "ultra-black target element for SVS" with dots that were easier to track, less affected by light and resistant to deterioration. The new black dots were put on all satellites and other hardware the Canadarm would be moving, including the parts of the International Space Station.

An unexpected delay for the better

The new SVS was ready to fly in 1986, but the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster caused what turned out to be a six-year delay in shuttle flights. Canadian astronauts used this time to improve the SVS software based on the results of simulation tests in a mockup of the Space shuttle's cargo bay facility. 

The resulting Advanced Space Vision System (ASVS) was even better than the original. MacLean finally tested it in 1992 aboard Space Shuttle Columbia.   In 1995, it was used to attach the Orbiter Docking Station to the shuttle and dock with the Mir Space Station. Since 1999, the ASVS has been critical in constructing the Canadarm II and the Mobile Servicing Station on the International Space Station.

The new and improved system ensures safety

The new 3D Advanced Space Vision System was successfully tested in 1999. Instead of recording video, like previous models, it recorded digitally, allowing for better resolution and faster image processing. A laser scanner was added to the system in 2001 that could be used for creating virtual simulations and scanning shuttles for damage.

While the ASVS was operating so successfully, work began to improve the Space Vision System with 3D-scanning. NRC had been developing this technology for the inspection of auto parts in the manufacturing sector. It promised to overcome the problems of the earlier Space Vision systems by allowing astronauts to work without worrying about the reflection of the Sun, difficult light conditions or a time delay in images. The new high-performance system could also be used to scan the shuttle for damage while in Space. 

After the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost in 2003, this safety scanning system became a major priority to prevent the loss of future shuttles and crew.   The detailed scanning technology can detect faults in the shuttle's protective tiles down to a millimetre.

NRC's Space Vision System has come a long way since it was first developed. Since 2001, it has been used to help build the International Space Station. Work is also underway on a new orbiter using the SVS that will breathe new life into Space probes like the Hubble Telescope by replacing their batteries.

Using Space-age technology on Earth

The technology used in SVS has many Earth-bound applications as well. It is used in the automobile industry by assembly robots and for testing sheet metal for imperfections. The military uses it for 3D target scanning and recognition. Law enforcement officers use it to gather hard-to-get evidence like shoe and finger prints. It is even used to preserve historical treasures by creating 3D scans of artifacts and buildings, creating virtual reality versions of famous paintings at the Louvre and medieval monasteries in Italy.

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A New Era in Electronic Music

In the 1980s, a popular new genre of music called synthpop took over the airwaves. The distinct style was filled with the funky sounds produced by newly-available technologies like electronic drum machines and synthesizers.  

But the story of the synthesizer started long before teased hair and parachute pants were popular. The first synthesizer was developed by the National Research Council's Hugh Le Caine in 1945.

The electronic sackbut

Hugh Le Caine had a passion for music and instruments his entire life, but for many years he chose to follow a more practical career path in physics, nuclear sciences and radar development. Through it all, Le Caine maintained his love for all things musical.

Eventually, he started to combine his interest in music with his knowledge of atomic physics, radar and radio technology. In 1945, Le Caine quietly built an electronic synthesizer into a desk in his Ottawa home. Dubbed the "Electronic Sackbut," his invention became the world's first electronic music synthesizer.

A new way of making music

While other electronic instruments existed before the electronic sackbut, Le Caine's invention is recognized as the original synthesizer because it provided an entirely new method of creating and controlling sounds.

The electronic sackbut used an automatic background voltage that could be changed by the performer's actions, like using the keys or knobs. Changes in the electrical voltage changed the sounds produced by the sackbut. Although the sackbut could only produce one note at a time, the performer could control that sound in many ways. 

Le Caine produced many compositions with his electronic sackbut, the most famous being the futuristic-sounding Dripsody, a composition produced by electronically manipulating the sound of a single drop of water many times. He composed and recorded Dripsody in a single night at NRC.

His innovations included a revolutionary new touch-sensitive keyboard that allowed a performer to change a note's volume by altering the vertical pressure on a key. A side-to-side motion changed the pitch and sound of the note.

The performer's right hand used the keyboard, changing volume and pitch as described above, while the left hand operated other controls that changed the texture of sounds. This arrangement made it possible to transition gradually between different sounds, resulting in a smoother overall sound and allowing the performer to be more expressive.

Exploring electronic music

Although Le Caine's electronic sackbut was never put directly into commercial production, he remains an electronic music pioneer who not only created the first synthesizer, but also the touch-sensitive keyboard and variable speed multi-track tape recorder. His work was later complimented by another NRC employee, Ken Pulfer, a pioneer in his own right who experimented with computer music programs in the 1970s.

Le Caine's legacy is an enduring one as much of today's popular music still incorporates synthesizers.

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Thin-film Technology Helps Foil Counterfeiters

Take a close look at one of the newest Canadian $5 bills. If you hold it against a strong light you will see it contains a narrow strip of plastic that is embedded within the paper. This strip carries a special optical thin film coating that is exposed on the back of the bank note only in small rectangular patches where it touches the surface of the paper. The strip changes colour from gold to green when viewed at an increasing angle and it is inscribed with a repeating message "CAN 5."

This unique colour-changing strip, now common on all Canadian currency, is designed to foil counterfeiters. It cannot be reproduced through normal printing or photographic processes, nor can it be peeled away because it is not stuck onto the surface.

The strip is an optical security device – a state-of-the-art anti-counterfeiting feature that incorporates a principle developed by the National Research Council for the protection of Canada's money.

Putting a stop to bogus bills

In 1968, the Bank of Canada was worried that counterfeiters would soon be armed with high-resolution photocopiers, printers and computer production techniques. It approached NRC for help in making it harder for criminals to produce fake Canadian money. The NRC suggested incorporating optical thin films into bank notes that would change colour with the angle of viewing.

NRC researchers had been working on new thin film optical filters, and the research of physicist George Dobrowolski and his team on thin-film multilayer devices was attracting a great deal of interest. But the technology for currency protection did not come quickly. It took 10 years of work, but eventually it was ready to be used for security applications. In the late 1980s, Toronto company Identicard Ltd. licensed the technology to make fool-proof ID cards and driver's licenses.

From 1989 onwards, the Bank of Canada began introducing a series of new $20, $50, and $100 notes featuring optical security devices – a colour-changing patch on the front of each bill that changed from gold to green when viewed from different angles. An immediate decrease in counterfeiting followed each new release.

The beauty of the technology was that it was relatively inexpensive for the Bank of Canada to produce the security patches for its bills. But because the machines required for their cost-effective manufacture required millions of dollars to build, counterfeiters simply did not have the resources to build their own.

As NRC technology continued to evolve, so did the security protection built into Canada's bank notes. In the second generation of the optical security devices, the colour-changing material is introduced not onto the surface, but into the bank note paper itself in the form of a thin, coated plastic thread. The Bank of Canada continues to upgrade its security features to make it even tougher to produce counterfeit Canadian bills.

Globally-recognized expertise

Today, researchers at the NRC Institute for Microstructural Sciences continue to develop their world-renowned design and fabrication methods for multilayer coatings for various applications. In addition to anti-counterfeiting, thin films are used in scientific instruments, solar cells, computers, visual displays, architectural and automotive glass and telecommunication devices. NRC holds many patents on technology related to optical thin films.

For his contributions to the field of optical engineering, George Dobrowolski received two medals from the Optical Society of America and was named a Member of the Order of Canada.

Although they can be quite attractive, the optical security devices on bank notes are much more than mere decoration. Thanks to NRC's pioneering optical thin-film research, optically-variable devices based on thin films can be found protecting passports, bank notes and other documents all over the world.

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Virtualizing Reality: Preserving Treasures and Innovating Entertainment

When virtual reality (VR) technology was developed in the 1980s, it was envisioned as a way for people to do extraordinary things, like play inside of video games or go on "virtual" holidays. The reality of virtual reality, however, is much different and much more practical.

The revolutionary three-dimensional (3D) digitizing technologies developed by a team of scientists at the National Research Council (NRC) are all about preserving global heritage and international treasures, innovating entertainment, improving engineering, and ensuring the safety of space travel.

Virtualizing Reality

Virtual reality is a computer-generated experience that lets people interact with a "virtual" 3D environment that feels like it really exists around them. These environments stimulate the senses in various ways, including sounds relative to a person's movements. Through virtualized environments obtained from 3D digitizing, a person could explore ancient monuments halfway around the world without ever leaving Canada. Virtualized reality also includes incredibly realistic 3D objects which can be manipulated and examined as if they were real.

In the mid-1980s, NRC began developing 3D digitizing technologies. NRC researchers invented a laser scanner that would revolutionize the way VR objects and environments were created. At this time, scientists around the world were working on VR, but the environments they created were synthetic and looked flat, cartoon-like and obviously computer-generated. At NRC, in contrast, for the first time, VR objects and environments were digitized from physical reality using a 3D laser scanner and imported in VR tools for visualization, navigation and interaction. This process was named "Virtualizing Reality".

How it works

NRC uses its special laser scanner to capture images of real places and objects to create VR simulations. The scanner captures even the smallest detail of an object or environment from all angles by shining a combination of blue, red and green light which reflects off the subject to provide information about its shape and color. The resulting image is digitized and made into a virtual 3D copy of the original.

Such detailed scanning is a big undertaking, involving up to millions of different measurements to make an accurate virtual model – a process that produces huge amounts of data. The final results of all this hard work are stunning virtual replicas of places and objects that are permanently preserved for historical, industrial and entertainment uses.

Protecting historical treasures

One of the most promising uses of VR technology is heritage conservation. Museums are filled with priceless artifacts – bits and pieces of history that tell the stories of our ancestors – but war, earthquake, handling and time cause irreplaceable historical treasures to be lost, damaged or even destroyed. Yet museums have a mandate to present the nation's heritage to visitors, students and scholars.

By creating virtual 3D models of museum artifacts, however, museums could limit the handling and movement of artifacts. Displays of virtual artifacts have the potential to last indefinitely, ensuring generations to come will continue to admire and learn from them, without causing damage.

The first effort to produce a virtual museum exhibition culminated in the "Mysteries of Egypt" tour at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The virtual display allowed visitors to tour Egyptian pyramids, mummies and tombs. Its success has paved the way for similar exhibitions in the future.

NRC has used the same technology to create digital records of some of the world's greatest works of art in Paris, including three paintings by Renoir. Researchers were able to map the texture of the paintings' surfaces – right down to individual brush strokes and cracks in the paint. The resulting images will be used for future conservation purposes and to monitor how the paintings change over time. 

NRC's expertise and specialized tools are sought by the Louvre, the British Museum and other great museums for the protection of their rare works of art. By creating such incredibly detailed reproductions of historical artifacts, conservationists can ensure they will never be lost.

Virtual characters come to life

High resolution 3D Laser scanning has become an invaluable tool in the entertainment industry as well. The NRC-designed system has been recognized as the best in the world – unmatched in accuracy, precision and degree of detail. A Canadian company, XYZ RGB, has been using the NRC technology to create breathtaking computer graphics for big Hollywood blockbusters including Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Batman Returns, King Kong, and two sequels to The Matrix. In 2004, NRC and XYZ RGB were nominated for an Academy Award for their innovative 3D Digitizing and modeling.

Using VR technology to save time and lives

NRC's technology has applications spanning many fields, not only entertainment and conservation. VR simulations can be used for training people to perform complicated or dangerous tasks, like flying a plane or operating a construction crane. Theme park designers can test virtual roller coasters for safety before building the real thing.

Laser scanning is used for reverse engineering – creating an object based on one that already exits. A toy designer could create a prototype of a new toy, for example, and then scan it to create a 3D computer model that can be adjusted and modified. This technique saves time and money by reducing the number of actual prototypes required throughout the design process. Once the design is finalized, the information can even be sent straight from the computer to the manufacturer.

Some out-of-this-world applications also use laser scanning. The Space Vision System was originally designed by NRC to help astronauts control the Canadarm on the International Space Station. In the 1990s, laser scanning technology was added to the system to give astronauts even greater control over objects in space. Recently the system has been used to scan the surface of the Space Shuttle while in space to make sure there is no damage to its surface that could affect the shuttle's safe return to earth.

Whether on the ground or out in space, virtualized reality technologies developed at NRC have contributed to the creation, preservation and exploration of some of the most fascinating objects and places we have ever experienced.

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Engineering a Better Quality of Life

The dedicated researchers at the National Research Council have produced many significant medical technologies and advancements, but perhaps two of the most important are the first practical motorized wheelchair and the first artificial pacemaker. Through these developments, NRC scientists have improved the quality of life of millions of people around the world.

The motorized wheelchair

Before the Second World War, no one had had much success developing an electric wheelchair. Engineers had been putting motors on standard folding wheelchairs, but their attempts did not work very well. The modified chairs were impractical and dangerous – no one wanted unreliable chairs wreaking havoc in hospital hallways. Some even thought there was no need for motorized wheelchairs at all.

But World War II changed everything. The war produced a new kind of veteran. The introduction of penicillin treatments allowed soldiers to survive injuries that previously would have killed them. This also meant that increasing numbers of para- and quadriplegic veterans were returning home to deal with the reality of living with paralysis. Manual wheelchairs were no longer adequate.

NRC's George Klein took on the task of creating a useable electric wheelchair to meet the needs of these new veterans. He fixed the problems with earlier designs by increasing the electric drive's voltage and replacing the single drive with two separate ones. These were dramatic improvements, but he continued to perfect the design. 

Throughout the entire process, Klein's team worked closely with the patients that would eventually use the chairs. Klein wanted to make sure the end product would be useful for them. Patient tests, suggestions and feedback guided the designers. 

For example, one patient's movement was restricted to his head, so a control system was developed to allow the man to operate the chair with pressure from his cheek instead of his hands. After some practice, the man could control the chair without assistance, giving him the chance to experience an exciting new independence.

The end result of Klein's efforts was not only the world's first truly practical electric wheelchair – an invention that would change the lives of people with severe disabilities – but also an entirely new way of developing medical aids. By working closely with the wheelchair's future users to design the device, Klein pioneered the field of rehabilitation engineering and discovered the remarkable strength of the human spirit along the way.

The artificial pacemaker

It was while studying hypothermia at NRC that John A. Hopps acquired the high-frequency heating and microwave skills that would lead him to make the first artificial cardiac pacemaker – a device that would save thousands of lives.

John Hopp's first pacemaker measured 30cm (about one foot) long – much too big to be implanted in the body like today's pacemakers. The 1950s pacemaker used vacuum tubes to generate pulses and was powered by 60Hz household current. The transvenous catheter electrodes used in the first model are still found in today's pacemakers.

In 1949, physicians were using extreme cold to slow down heart rate and make open heart surgery possible, but they could not figure out how to safely restart a heart if it were to stop during surgery. Enter Hopps, who accidentally discovered that a "cooled" heart could be restarted without damage by using a mild electrical stimulus. The discovery led to the creation of the first artificial pacemaker to stop ventricular fibrillation (a disruption in the heartbeat).

Over the years, advancements in battery and transistor technology allowed the pacemaker to become increasingly small, until it could be implanted into humans. This happened for the first time in 1957 when one of the devices was put into the chest of a Swedish man.

For years, scientists continued to refine pacemaker technology. In 1963, concern about the hazards of batteries running down while in the body led another NRC engineer, O.Z. Roy, to look for a way to run the pacemaker off the energy of the human body itself. In 1965, the first biological pacemaker was created.

When he received his own pacemaker in 1984, John Hopps experienced first-hand how important this invention was for saving lives.

Through the wheelchair and the pacemaker, NRC's scientists and engineers have improved the lives of countless people around the world and continued the NRC tradition of innovative medical research.

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