A strong foundation

Professor Daichao Sheng's research expertise covers the areas of unsaturated soil mechanics, computational geomechanics, cold region geotechnics and geo-environmental engineering.

Professor Daichao ShengProfessor Sheng, Head of Discipline of Civil, Surveying and Environmental Engineering, has a Bachelor of Science from Lanzhou University in China and a Licentiate in Engineering and a PhD from Lulea University of Technology, Sweden.

In his role as Co-Director of the Priority Research Centre for Geotechnical and Materials Modelling, Sheng will be chief investigator for a large 2015 ARC-funded study on the mechanics of hard soils and soft rocks, and will also be an investigator on another 2015 ARC-funded study on unsaturated soil-structure interaction with emphasis on buried pipelines.  

Hard soils and soft rocks are transitional materials that have properties evolving from soft rock to soft soil. They are widespread in Australia and typical examples include mudstone, claystones, shales and tuffs. These materials are very difficult to handle in construction, mainly due to the fact that their strength, stiffness and volume can change substantially in response to environmental actions such as wetting and drying. Proper prediction of the transitional behaviour of these materials is crucially important for analysing the stability and serviceability of civil structures founded on them.

The ARC-funded project aims to develop a theoretical and practical framework for characterising the transitional behaviour of hard soils and soft rocks. It will deliver a high-quality experimental data base and a validated theoretical framework that can encapsulate the behaviour of transitional geomaterials under environmental actions, and hence provide guidelines for handling these materials in civil works and tools for predicting the short- and long-term stability and serviceability of civil structures.

Professor Sheng has a prolific body of research to his name with over 110 journal articles and 82 conference papers to date. Career highlights include three international best paper awards and the Young Investigator Award at the 6th World Congress on Computational Mechanics which recognises the outstanding achievements of an investigator aged under 41 through their published works in computational mechanics.

Recently Sheng was awarded the John Booker Medal for his outstanding contribution towards understanding the behaviour of unsaturated soils and frozen soils, an award Sheng received in 2014 from the International Association for Computer Methods and Advances in Geomechanics. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Engineers Australia and also a Distinguished Professor at Central South University School of Civil Engineering in China, a role he has had since 2013. In the latter role, he is helping Chinese researchers and railway engineers to understand the unexpected frost heave in a high-speed railway embankment in north-east China. The unexpected frost heave has caused a significant reduction in train speed, from the design speed of 350 km/hour to an operational speed of 200 km/hour in winter seasons. Sheng's research also leads to practical solutions to the problem for future high-speed railway construction in cold regions.

In early 2014, Professor Sheng took on the role of Editor of the Canadian Geotechnical Journal, for which he served as an Associate Editor since 2008. First published in 1963, this is one of the three oldest geotechnical journals and was ranked as an A* journal in the ERA 2010 journal rankings. He is the first non-Canadian editor of the journal. In addition, he serves on the editorial boards of three other international journals.

With co-author Dr Jubert Pineda, in 2013 Professor Sheng was commissioned by the Office of the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer to evaluate potential subsidence and possible mitigation measures that are available to minimise and control subsidence during coal seam gas extraction.

In 2014 Sheng received the Vice Chancellor's Award for Supervision Excellence in his Faculty, which recognises the important role supervisors play in supporting the University's PhD and research masters students. He is currently supervising five civil engineering PhD students.

"Working with PhD students is a satisfying and rewarding experience. We are not only solving challenging scientific and engineering problems, we are also training the next generation of research leaders. It satisfies me most to see my students and research associates doing well in their career," explains Sheng.

Sheng sums up his motivation for being involved in so many different arenas. "As an academic, we spend much our time, including weekends and holidays, reviewing and assessing our colleagues' work, in addition to our own research. It is difficult to understand our motivation from a financial point of view, but the bottom line is we are doing things that interest us. For me, research is the one thing that I'm most interested in and that I feel like I am doing best. I thank my wife and children for allowing me to have this indulgence."