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Drawing on science to protect the environment

Whenever Quebecers discuss environmental issues, the National Institute of Scientific Research’s Water, Earth and Environment Centre (INRS-ETE) is sure figure prominently in the conversation. “Internally developed environmental technologies, cutting-edge methods to detect environmental changes in ecosystems, innovative approaches to integrated and sustainable resource management and modelling tools for natural processes are the four key sectors that have made INRS-ETE one of the world’s leading environmental facilities,” says researcher and Centre director Yves Bégin.

  • Year founded: 1969
  • 250 research employees
  • 195 master’s and doctoral students
  • Budget: CA$24.7 million
  • Research fund: CA$11.3 million (grants/research contracts)

Research programs
  • Hydrology
  • Site remediation and waste recycling
  • Water and soil biogeochemistry
  • Geosciences

The INRS has four research centres
  • Water, Earth and Environment
  • Energy, Materials and Telecommunications
  • INRS-Armand Frappier Institute
  • Urbanization, Culture and Society

As part of the Quebec university network, the INRS is dedicated to conducting research, operating graduate education programs (master’s and doctoral levels) and training researchers and highly qualified specialists. Its mandate is to develop basic and applied research in Quebec’s priority sectors while carrying out knowledge and technology transfers in all of its operating areas. In pursuit of those goals, the Centre’s research professors and their teams are continuously increasing the quantity and particularly the quality of environmental knowledge, primarily in the fields of water and geological resources. Their aim is to ensure enlightened and responsible environmental stewardship with a view to correcting the errors of the past.

The Centre’s science program comprises four main disciplines: hydrology; environmental remediation and waste recycling; water and soil biogeochemistry; and geosciences. These disciplines obviously overlap in terms of shared strategic initiatives involving the risks associated with extreme natural events or human-induced pollution; the impact of climate change on resources and resource use and the necessary adaptations; water and mineral resource management and related site development; and remediation and decontamination technologies in urban and natural environments.


Canada contains approximately 6% of the world’s fresh water, with Quebec alone accounting for nearly 2%. Managing, decontaminating and preserving this vital resource is a key priority for INRS-ETE, which carries out projects in the areas of hydrology, hydrogeology, biogeochemistry, water quality and environmental remediation technologies. “The Centre has Canada’s highest concentration of scientific and academic water expertise,” notes Mr. Bégin.

The Centre’s hydrology program includes hydrological statistical forecasting (flood and ice jam forecasting, structural design assistance, etc.), watershed hydrology (integrated management tools for water quality and sustainable use), urban hydrology (infrastructure, climate change impacts on water supplies, runoff contamination, etc.) and environmental hydraulics (flood risk, climate change in forest environments, erosion, etc.).

Also taking part in the program is a northern/physical oceanography team specializing in surface layer and tide circulation and currently investigating physical processes and their impacts on marine life and habitats.

Site remediation and waste recycling

The remediation and recycling program is considerably more technology-focused, placing special emphasis on developments affecting minerallurgy (extraction of metals from waste, sludge and ash, contaminated site restoration, etc.), reuse of biomass residues (production of biopesticides, biofuels and biosurfactants from biosolids, composting of agri-food waste, etc.) and urban and industrial site remediation (treating effluent with electrotechnologies, manure processing, etc.). “The processes developed at the Centre are often patented or used in technology transfers to companies,” says Mr. Bégin. “For example, an INRS-developed metal recovery process was adopted by Pro-Or, a mining company, which uses this technology to extract platinum, palladium and rhodium from catalytic converters. These metals are worth more than gold and can be reused by industry, e.g., to produce new converters.”

Water and soil biogeochemistry

The biogeochemistry program focuses on contaminant dispersion as well as on the uptake of trace metals by aquatic organisms and related effects aimed at detecting environmental changes in lake ecosystems. Environmental biochemistry (source identification, movement and elimination of sediment pollution in aquatic environments, etc.), limnology and paleolimnology (bio-optics, limnogeology, sediment analysis, etc.) and ecotoxicology are the programs’ primary strategic areas.


The geosciences program also has a multidisciplinary focus. As part of a federal government-university partnership that is unique in Canada, INRS-ETE is part of the Quebec Geoscientific Centre, where researchers from both institutions are jointly developing effective analytical methods for sedimentary geological environments and related natural resources (hydrocarbons and minerals). These environmental geoscience activities also examine current geological processes and their impacts on the environment, particularly in the area of climate change (hydrogeological research plays a key role in this aspect of the program). In addition, over the past few years, INRS-ETE researchers have been studying groundwater contamination at firing ranges on military bases, in association with the Department of National Defence.

The Centre’s dynamic multidisciplinary focus has paved the way for a number of innovative major projects, such as a Quebec government-financed study of the risks and potential of underground CO2 sequestration.


Located in downtown Quebec City on the University of Quebec’s urban campus, INRS-ETE boasts an array of state-of-the-art laboratory equipment (ITRAX scanner, scanning electron microscope, ultra-clean whiteroom, plasma atomic emission spectrophotometer, etc.)

The Centre recently finished building new laboratories valued at $60 million in the Quebec City Metro High Tech Park, where projects will be carried out in association with the private sector and other partners. “The equipment at our new facilities is unique in Canada, particularly in the areas of environmental biotechnologies and scanography. This will facilitate the industrial scaling of the technological processes developed at the Centre.”

Fostering interuniversity cooperation, a research station located in Sacré Cœur (Saguenay region) provides workspace and environmental training opportunities in the form of seminars, internships, research projects and scientific meetings.

Lisa-Marie Noël

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