From cleaning up coal to building BC research

BC Research CEO Hassan Hamza: “I had an offer I couldn’t refuse. It had nothing to do with the money. I came to a company who believes in innovation” | Rob Kruyt

When Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) brought Hassan Hamza to Canada from Egypt in the 1970s, it was to use his expertise in the chemistry of coal to fix Canada’s “dirty” coal problem.

He discovered the problem wasn’t so much the coal itself as international standards, which his research helped to change. Canadian metallurgical coal is now considered to be high quality and constitutes B.C.’s second most important export.

Hamza was later tasked with solving technical problems with Alberta’s nascent oilsands industry. His small lab at NRCan in Edmonton came up with a process that removes solid contaminants from bitumen – a process that Royal Dutch Shell PLC adopted.

“In six years, we went from the microscope to a commercial plant which cost $6.7 billion,” Hamza said.

Over the course of more than three decades, Hamza helped build CanmetENERGY – NRCan’s energy research division – from a lab with a $50,000 budget and eight scientists and engineers into a research facility with a $30 million budget and staff of 120.

So when the folks at BC Research in Vancouver learned Hamza had recently retired from CanmetENERGY as director general and was now living in B.C., they made him an offer he said he just couldn’t refuse.

The offer was the CEO’s position at BC Research – the R&D division of Noram Engineering and Constructors Ltd. – to bring more of a scientific focus to it, with the aim of developing it into a Canadian centre of excellence for clean-technology research and commercialization.

“We are in the process of trying to transform the company,” said BC Research vice-president and COO Sergio Berretta.

“We need to bring [in] somebody that has a lot of strong experience on the science side – somebody who has built R&D facilities from scratch into renowned R&D facilities.

“Our strength has always been engineering. Our science has been strong, but not as strong as our engineering side. He’s bringing many decades of building an R&D facility from scratch to what Canmet is today.”

Born in Mansoura, Egypt, in 1940, Hamza graduated from Cairo University with a science degree, majoring in mining. He did a master of science and then got a grant to study in England, where he got his PhD at King’s College (now Newcastle University). His thesis was on coal mine tailings.

Hamza was an accomplished soccer player in Egypt and tried playing in the U.K., but he quickly became disillusioned with the way the beautiful game was played there at the university level.

“Soccer in Egypt is very similar to the Brazilian soccer – you have to show off,” he said. “You have to play for entertainment.”

That’s not the way the Brits did it.

“The soccer there – before they got all their international players – was more close to wrestling,” he said.

He quit playing soccer and today the most vigorous activity he partakes in is walking and yoga – both of which, he finds, settle his mind.

After he graduated with a PhD, he spent a year working for the U.K.’s National Coal Board, then moved back to Egypt where he taught and did research.

He first came to Canada in 1975 at the invitation of the NRCan to apply his knowledge of coal mine tailings to address problems in Canada’s coal industry.

Western Canadian coal is known for its low sulphur content, but it tends to be easily crumbled, which was believed to contribute to air pollution and therefore discounted the coal on world markets.

Hamza’s research managed to prove that Canadian coal’s crumbly composition did not make it any dirtier and, as a result, NRCan was able to get the ISO standards changed – something that would be a huge benefit to B.C.

Hamza went back to Egypt to teach after his two-year research grant expired, but NRCan brought him back in 1979 fulltime. He spent the rest of his career there developing new energy technology and helping to build CanmetENERGY into what it is today.

In 2013, Hamza moved to B.C. from Edmonton with plans to retire. A widower, Hamza has eight grandchildren, three of whom live in Vancouver, and part of his motivation for moving was to be closer to his children and grandchildren. His son, a doctor, lives in Vancouver, and he has a daughter in Seattle. He also has a son who lives in Houston, Texas.

“I love the water and I love walking and I love to be close to my grandchildren,” he said. “I used to play soccer, so now I can go and criticize how they play.”

When he first moved to B.C., he continued to work for CanmetENERGY as a special adviser, but in December 2014, he became fully retired. It lasted all of a month before BC Research came knocking.

“I had an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he said. “It had nothing to do with the money. I came to a company who believes in innovation. It is not often you see a company that is very strong in commercialization and who has very strong philosophy of innovation. And they gave me a very nice office on the water.”

Originally a non-profit research centre based out of the University of British Columbia (UBC), BC Research was privatized in the 1990s and acquired by three engineering companies, including Noram, which eventually bought out the other two companies.

Westport Innovations (TSX:WPT) and Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies Inc. are among the B.C. clean-tech companies that were spun out of BC Research’s labs.

BC Research is more than just the R&D division for Noram Engineering, which has built chemical plants all over the world. It has also become an incubator for clean-tech startups, like Nano One Materials Corp. (TSX-V:NNO) – formerly Perfect Lithium – which is working on a process to boost battery life and capacity.

As these startups scale up to the commercial stage, BC Research can leverage Noram’s engineering expertise to help them build commercial-scale plants and technology. A good example of this is a $4.5 million demonstration plant that BC Research is building in Squamish for Calgary-based Carbon Engineering. The plant is being designed to take carbon dioxide from the air for use in enhanced oil recovery.

BC Research is expanding. It will soon move into a new, larger facility, which will also be home to the new Carbon Capture and Conversion Institute – a collaborative effort involving BC Research, UBC and Carbon Management Canada, a national research network.

“We are going to be connected with large institutes in Europe and across North America,” Hamza said. “It will be a node in the international development of new technologies for carbon capture and utilization.”

Although his original plans were to retire and write, Hamza said he is now excited over the prospect of breaking new ground with BC Research in clean technology.

“They are very creative,” he said. “Innovation is a philosophy [for them] and for somebody like myself, that’s what attracts me. I am always happy in an environment where you are always squeezing your brain.”