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Vol 40  No 11
March 13, 2008


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Sniffing out a solution
by Michele Osmond

A new mixture of gasoline could eliminate gas sniffing in rural communities.

Gas sniffing among young people in Labrador has been in the news for a number of years. Disturbing images of young teens carrying bags of gas have been broadcast around the world with a plea for help from community leaders. The health effects associated with sniffing gasoline are numerous: cancer, leukemia, heart attack, brain damage and neurotoxicity, which can lead to significant effects on intellectual capacity, visual motor function and memory. Gas sniffing can also has devastating affects on the social fabric of communities.

Researchers from the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science in partnership with petroleum engineers from the Newfoundland and Labrador Refining Corporation are investigating a new mixture of gasoline that would essentially eliminate gas sniffing. The study, which involves Drs. Kelly Hawboldt, Andy Fisher and Faisal Khan, is in partnership with Memorial University’s Genesis Group and community leaders with funding from the Harris Centre, is entitled “The Technical Feasibility of Opal Gas Applications in Labrador”. The team is looking at potential modifications of an existing gas, called Opal. Opal has only five per cent aromatics compared to 25 per cent in regular unleaded gas so sniffing Opal fuel doesn’t lead to intoxication.

Opal gas was developed by British Petroleum Australia as a response to a gasoline sniffing problem in remote communities in that country. Last year, representatives from the Nunatsiavut Government, the Innu Nation, the Genesis Group, representatives from Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine, Health Canada and the Youth Substance Abuse Committee visited Papunya, a small aboriginal community in the Australian outback which has also felt the effects of gas sniffing.

“Fortunately, the remoteness of Labrador communities makes them an ideal location for a trial with Opal gas. Most communities are not accessible by road and can only be reached by boat or plane and winter also limits the movement of cargo in and out,” explained Dave King, president of Genesis. “Limited access to the communities means that regular gas would not be easily obtained once Opal was introduced and one of the key factors in the success of Opal in Australia is limiting or removing access to regular gas.”

Opal gasoline has a number of advantages for the environment, as well, explains Dr. Hawboldt. “The lower levels of aromatics in the Opal gas will have an impact on exhaust gas. Gasoline containing high levels of aromatics, such as benzene, has a greater tendency to emit unburned hydrocarbons, which are not easily oxidized in catalytic converters and are precursors of smog and particulate matter.”

There are several technical questions, however, that need to be resolved before this technology can be employed in Labrador or any other cold climate. In particular, the operational characteristics of a suitable fuel for the cold temperatures in northern Canada are very different than those required in Australia. These characteristics must be converted into a fuel specification and refining plan, while maintaining the Opal advantage of very low aromatics. There are also the issues of transportation and storage. Finally, a refinery with the right capabilities needs to be identified in order to eventually develop the supply of a gasoline like Opal. Researchers are expected to present their findings in the fall. Following field testing and finding a refinery to produce the gasoline, the fuel will be introduced in 2011.

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