Down to earth
In 1984, when a young Dr Scott Sloan paused to reflect on an already-accomplished academic career in civil engineering, he looked around the hallowed grounds of Oxford University and decided a move back to Australia might offer him the chance to "build something".
Today as Director of the Priority Research Centre for Geotechnical and Materials Modelling, Laureate Professor Sloan's academic achievements are testimony to his decision. A geotechnical engineer, Sloan is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow (one of only three in civil engineering). He is also a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (also one of only three in civil engineering), and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. He is one of only 70 people to be elected to a Fellowship of both of these academies.
Sloan cites his election to the prestigious Australian Academy of Science – a peak body of just over 400 of the nation's top scientific researchers – as a career highlight. Fellows are recognised for research that has had a profound impact on international scientific knowledge. Sloan was nominated for his creation of numerical methods to predict the maximum load capacity for structures such as tunnels, dams, highways, offshore platforms and building foundations. The methods have delivered groundbreaking new tools for engineers to design cheaper and safer civil infrastructure.
Based on the limit theorems of plasticity, finite elements and advanced optimisation algorithms, these methods have been extended to model both static and cyclic loading. Sloan said the ability to accurately estimate load limits was crucial to many forms of infrastructure design, but that it was complicated because natural ground often responds in a complex manner in any given area.
Sloan’s work has created a method enabling engineers to tackle this challenging problem. The computer programs arising from Sloan’s techniques are currently being developed for the marketplace through a software company formed with colleagues through Newcastle Innovation. He finds this side of the work particularly exciting.
"You get an incredible sense of achievement when software you have laboured over for months works for the first time. The behaviour of geomaterials is very complicated, and programs which accurately estimate load capacity are crucial to the safe and economic design of infrastructure."