The building blocks of success
When Laureate Professor Scott Sloan first arrived at the University of Newcastle in 1984 having obtained a Masters degree and Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Cambridge, there was just one other geotechnical engineer on campus.
The respected researcher hoped a return to Australia would give him the chance to "build something", but he could not have predicted how significant that "something" would be.
Nearly three decades later and with a long list of academic accolades, published research and prestigious fellowships filling his CV, the Australian Government announced in July 2010 that Sloan would lead the University's new multi-million dollar Australian Research Council Centre for Excellence in Geotechnical Science and Engineering.
As the Centre's director, Sloan will play a key role in the formation and development of cutting-edge methods for the design of energy and transport infrastructure such as roads, railways, offshore oil and gas production facilities, ports and pipelines.
"In the next five years, the public and private sectors will spend about $250 billion on energy and transport infrastructure nationally," he says. "It is an enormous investment. Our challenge as engineers is to predict the behaviour of the infrastructure, particularly the ground it's founded on, because that determines safety and cost effectiveness.
"The University is one of the world's best in developing advanced computational methods for predicting the behaviour of geostructures, and the government and community demand the best."
Sloan's new role caps off an influential research career, which includes the creation of numerical methods to predict the maximum load capacity for built infrastructure such as tunnels, roads, ports and foundations. The methods have delivered groundbreaking new tools for engineering to design cheaper and safer civil infrastructure.
He is also one of Australia's most cited civil engineers and as the current director of the Priority Research Centre for Geotechnical and Materials Modelling, leads one of the world's premier geotechnical research groups. In 2011 he will deliver the 51st Rankine Lecture in London, the highest accolade available to a geotechnical engineer.
Modest about his achievements, Sloan is more comfortable discussing the focus of his research - computational methods and soil. "Soil is probably one of the most difficult materials to model; it is more complex than metal or wood," he explains. "Engineers have to design for the challenges it presents. The issue is that you tend to get layers and it is anisotropic, which means it has different properties in horizontal and vertical directions.
"The behaviour of soil also depends on its history. If you are working with a section of ground that has been excavated then filled, it will behave differently to soil that hasn't been excavated.
"A lot of infrastructure is built on problematic, coastal soils and if you look at transport corridors, such as the Pacific Highway, they are located on very soft ground. The same problems can occur offshore where sediments are extremely soft.
"As we saw with the Gulf of Mexico oil crisis, the cost of engineering failure can be horrific."
The new Centre for Excellence will provide essential guidance to industry and government using "testing and smart analysis", adds Sloan, who is looking forward to collaborating with chief investigators from the Universities of Western Australia and Wollongong, as well as partner investigators from Coffey Geotechnics, Douglas Partners, Advanced Geomechanics and the Colorado School of Mines.
"We've come a very long way in developing our expertise at the University in the past 20 years and this can only get better."
Find out more about the Centre for Geotechnical and Materials Modelling