Arizona State University (ASU) will lead a new National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center to pioneer advances in geotechnical engineering that promise solutions to some of the world’s biggest environmental and infrastructure development challenges.
The consortium of university, industry and government partners has been awarded US$18.5 million to establish the Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics (CBBG) to expand the emerging field of biogeotechnical engineering.
CBBG’s researchers will focus on “nature-compatible” approaches to boosting the resiliency of civil infrastructure, improving the effectiveness of environmental protection and ecological restoration methods, and developing ways to make infrastructure construction and natural resource development operations more sustainable.
The center’s university partners are the Georgia Institute of Technology, New Mexico State University and the University of California, Davis. Engineers and scientists at those institutions will collaborate with ASU researchers to investigate the use of natural underground biological processes for engineering soil in ways that reduce construction costs while mitigating natural hazards and environmental degradation.
CBBG’s director is ASU Regents’ Professor Edward Kavazanjian. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Ira A. Fulton Professor of Geotechnical Engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.
ASU is now one of only two universities in the country leading currently NSF-funded Engineering Research Centers.
“This is our second NSF Engineering Research Center award in about four years. This is very rare and it reflects our unique culture that supports the kinds of multi-investigator and multi-institution teams needed to tackle these exciting areas of research at the intersection of many engineering and science disciplines," said Kyle Squires, the Fulton Schools' interim dean.
“This center has emerged from an idea Ed Kavazanjian has been conceptualizing and promoting in his professional community for the past several years, and it is great to see it come to fruition," Squires said. "Solutions born from the center will change how we build on and in the earth, and educate a workforce capable of putting research into industry practice."
Melding nature and technology
CBBG's researchers will endeavor to either employ or emulate natural processes in developing innovative methods and technologies for engineering geotechnical systems.
“In billions of years of evolution, nature has come up with some very elegant solutions to the problems we want to solve,” Kavazanjian said. “By employing or mimicking these natural processes we should be able to devise some of our own elegant solutions.”
Much of CBBG’s work will concentrate on developing bio-based methods of strengthening soils as a way to produce more solid ground for building foundations and to prevent erosion that threatens human health, the environment and infrastructure systems.
Researchers, for instance, will explore the use of microbial organisms to help stabilize soils. Certain kinds of microbes produce an enzyme that can cause calcium carbonate to precipitate in porous soils, thereby hardening the ground, making it more resistant to erosion, and providing a stronger foundation for construction.
Calcium carbonate precipitation can also be used in lieu of Portland cement to stabilize pavement subgrades and to create “bio-bricks,” soil particles that are bound together into building blocks for infrastructure construction.
Innovations in soil stabilization
Other efforts will involve attempting to figure out how to equal the performance of trees in their natural ability to stabilize soil against erosion and to provide support against wind and other loads through their root systems.
“The best man-made soil-reinforcing elements and foundation systems we have developed are not as efficient as trees at stabilizing soil. We want to be able to design soil-reinforcement and foundation systems that work like tree root systems,” Kavazanjian said.
Researchers will also seek to devise technologies that match some of the subterranean earth-moving and stabilization capabilities of burrowing insects and small mammals.
“Ants are a hundred times more energy-efficient at tunneling than our current technology. They excavate very carefully and their tunnels almost never collapse,” Kavazanjian said. “If we could do what ants can do, we could make underground mining much safer.”
New methods of environmental restoration
Similarly, he said, if engineers could design a probe with sensor technology and guidance systems that effectively digs and tunnels through soil like a mole, it would significantly improve subsurface exploration and characterization.
Such an accomplishment would lead to construction of stronger and safer roadways, bridges, dams, power plants, pipelines and buildings, and more efficient and effective oil-drilling and mining operations.
“We want to reproduce the beneficial effects that biological and biogeochemical processes can achieve, accelerate them, and then employ them on larger scales,” he said.
Progress in biogeotechnical technologies and engineering could also lead to significant improvements in methods of cleaning up environmental contaminants and restoring land denuded by erosion or industrial-scale resource extraction.
Advances could also produce better ways to fortify structures and landscapes against the destructive forces of earthquakes, including methods for combating the soil liquefaction that results from strong earthquakes and can severely destabilize large swaths of land.
Collaborative efforts will achieve global reach
A range of expertise across engineering and science disciplines will be needed to better understand the nature of the biogeochemical processes on which the center’s work will focus. In addition to Fulton Schools of Engineering faculty members, ASU’s team includes researchers from the university’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, the School of Life Sciences and the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.
Environmental protection and restoration aspects of the research will be directed by Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, an associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment and one of the center’s co-principal investigators.
“Being selected by NSF for the CBBG ERC is a game changer for civil engineering at ASU. It will showcase our leadership capabilities and our world-class faculty and programs,” said G. Edward Gibson, director of the School for Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.
"I'm excited that we will be able to focus on an emerging area of geotechnical engineering in a transdisciplinary way, bringing together experts in an array of fields. Their collaborations will yield possibilities for significant advances in the sustainability of the world's built environments," Gibson said.
The potential global impacts of CBBG’s work has attracted more than a dozen companies to sign on to the center’s industrial affiliates program to lend support to the research.
In addition, 15 universities from around the world — including some in Europe, Asia and South America — are expected to collaborate with CBBG on research and educational programs.
A number of agencies that manage large public infrastructure systems — including the Arizona and New Mexico transportation departments, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Port of Los Angeles — have also agreed to collaborate with the center on research and field-testing.
Education outreach key to center's mission
The CBBG’s mission also extends to expanding education in geotechnical science and engineering, as well as promoting diversity within the profession.
The center’s deputy director, Claudia Zapata, an associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, in collaboration with professor Wilhelmina Savenye in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, will oversee implementation of an education outreach and diversity program aimed at K-12 schools, community colleges and university undergraduates.
The program is to include development of geotechnical engineering educational material for undergraduate and graduate courses.
Mentoring, internship and professional development programs will be part of the center’s efforts to train a workforce equipped with the skills to put CBBG’s research into practice in industry.
Initial NSF funding that will support the new center for five years amounts to the nation’s largest single investment in geotechnical research, Kavazanjian said.
NSF support can be extended for a second five-year period, but after that time the center would be expected to become a self-supporting enterprise.
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