A foundation for success
With revered researchers such as Laureate Professor Scott Sloan and Professor John Carter leading the way, geotechnical engineering at the University of Newcastle is on solid ground.
Most drivers on the Pacific Highway would give little thought to the towering embankments that line the newly upgraded sections of the road along the NSW North Coast, but to engineers they represent a significant accomplishment.
As University of Newcastle Laureate Professor Scott Sloan explains, some of the embankments stand on soil that is very unstable and pose major engineering problems.
"Stepping onto coastal soft soils, you can sometimes sink to your knees," says Sloan, a geotechnical engineer and internationally recognised expert in soil stability analysis. "It is a massive engineering challenge to build major infrastructure on this type of foundation, in reasonable time and at reasonable cost."
The problem is typical of the troubleshooting nature of geotechnical engineering, which focuses on predicting the behaviour of earth materials to ensure stability for buildings and infrastructure.
Under Sloan's leadership, the University has long been a leader in computational modelling in the field. His development of faster and more efficient methods of calculating the load capacity for buildings and structures has drawn acclaim from around the world. User-friendly software developed by Sloan is set for international commercial release next year through Newcastle Innovation, the University's commercial arm.
Sloan is the director of the University's Centre for Geotechnical and Materials Modelling and also leads the new Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence in Geotechnical Science and Engineering. With funding of $14.4 million over seven years, the collaborative Centre for Excellence will specialise in developing new and improved tools for designing energy and transport infrastructure in a cost-effective manner.
The Centre combines the theoretical and computational strengths of the Newcastle research centre; the University of Wollongong's knowledge in below-track rail infrastructure; and the offshore expertise and experimental capabilities of the University of Western Australia, which has Australia's only geotechnical centrifuge modelling facility.
The collaboration represents a professional reunion of sorts for Sloan and his colleagues Professor John Carter, Newcastle's Pro Vice-Chancellor of Engineering and Built Environment, and Professor Mark Randolph, the former head of the University of Western Australia's Centre for Offshore Foundation Systems. All were researchers at Cambridge 30 years ago and each has gone on to build a distinguished academic and research career. The three are among the select few engineers who have been made Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science.
One of the initial joint projects under the ARC Centre for Excellence program will be the establishment of Australia's first national soft soil test site, near Ballina, on the NSW North Coast. Working with the Roads and Traffic Authority and industry partners, researchers will explore stability problems that have been experienced during the $5.0 billion Pacific Highway upgrade.
"This represents a significant challenge for engineers today because much of the east coast of Australia has problematic soft soils. Stable land along the coast is becoming increasingly scarce, forcing major transport and energy infrastructure projects onto marginal land where the soil can be very soft," Sloan says.
The ARC Centre for Excellence will also direct its research to safety analysis of offshore oil and gas developments on soft sea floors, an area in which Carter and colleagues from the University of Western Australia have significant expertise. For example, Carter has worked across the globe, from the oil platforms in the North Sea and to those on Australia's North West Shelf, and has consulted for BHP, Esso, Woodside Wapet, Bond Oil, Amoco and Exxon.
Some of his most challenging work was on the North Rankin A and Goodwyn platforms off Western Australia in the 1980s. Those early offshore projects in Australia were problematic, Carter explains, largely because the properties of the soft carbonate soils on the seabed were not well understood. Remediation work on the platforms ended up costing more than $500 million. However, as with most first-time projects, it proved to be a great learning ground for researchers and project engineers.
"It is often the case in engineering that you learn most when something goes wrong," Carter says.
Carter and Sloan are accomplished computational engineers whose mathematical models have been widely adopted into engineering practice. Both have received broad recognition from within their profession and beyond. Carter, named last year one of Australia's 100 most influential engineers, was particularly proud and humbled when he received an Order of Australia in 2006. Sloan nominates being invited to give this year's Rankine Lecture in England, one of the most prestigious honours in geotechnics, as a career highlight.
Both Sloan and Carter are enthusiastic advocates of the cross-disciplinary nature of research groups such as the research centre and Centre for Excellence.
"On any research project you will have a lot of people who work on the fringes," Carter says. "These centres encourage researchers from different disciplines to come together and allow for the better exchange of ideas and expertise between departments and institutions."
Sloan says the ARC Centre for Excellence adds to the already solid reputation of the University of Newcastle in geotechnical engineering.
"The geotechnical research group at this University is arguably the strongest in the country and one of the strongest internationally," he says.
"People want to come here to do their research. It has become a destination for the brightest and best in the world."