ASU taking reins of new national research center

August 10, 2015

Arizona State University 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 $18.5 million to establish the Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics (CBBG) to expand the emerging field of biogeotechnical engineering. Arizona State University Regents' Professor Edward Kavazanjian (right) will direct the new National Science Foundation Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics. The center will provide opportunities to be involved in cutting-edge research for graduate students such as Abdullah Almajed (at left), who is pursing a master's degree in geotechnical engineering. Download Full Image

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.

Read more about the center on the CBBG website.

Read more about the CBBG leadership team and faculty members who will have research roles, here.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU part of group that wins coveted engineering research center

August 10, 2015

No other resource is as necessary for life as is water, and providing it safely and universally is a grand challenge inextricably linked to public health, energy production and sustainable development.

Arizona State University and a consortium of industry, university and government partners have awarded $18.5 million to establish one of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) prestigious Engineering Research Centers to develop compact, mobile, off-grid water-treatment systems that can provide clean water to millions of people who lack it and make U.S. energy production more sustainable and cost effective. ASU researchers have been allocated $3.2 million for their role in the center. NEWT will develop modular, off-grid water-treatment technology Download Full Image

The Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment Systems center, or NEWT, will be led by and based at Rice University in Houston, Texas. It is funded by a five-year renewable NSF grant. NEWT brings together experts from ASU, Rice, University of Texas at El Paso and Yale University to work with more than 30 partners, including Shell, Baker Hughes, UNESCO, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

ERCs are interdisciplinary, multi-institutional entities that join academia, industry and government in partnership to produce both transformational technology and innovative-minded engineering graduates who are primed to lead the global economy. ERCs often become self-sustaining and typically leverage more than $50 million in federal and industry research funding during their first decade.

NEWT director Pedro Alvarez, Rice's George R. Brown Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and professor of chemistry, materials science and nanoengineering, said treated water is often unavailable in rural areas and low-resource communities that cannot afford large treatment plants or the miles of underground pipes to deliver water. Forty-three million Americans lack access to municipal water; 800 million worldwide lack access to safe water.

"The importance of clean water to global health and economic development simply cannot be overstated," said Alvarez, the principal investigator on the grant for NEWT. "We envision using technology and advanced materials to provide clean water to millions of people who lack it and to enable energy production in the United States to be more cost-effective and more sustainable in regard to its water footprint."

NEWT deputy director is Paul Westerhoff, ASU vice provost for academic research and professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“ASU is uniquely positioned to play a key role in this innovative center. Our school's civil engineering curriculum focuses on sustainable engineering as a revolutionary approach to solve key human needs," said G. Edward Gibson, director of the School for Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. Paul Westerhoff has garnered wide recognition for his work related to the treatment and occurrence of contaminants in water and for his multidisciplinary research. NEWT has the potential to create disruptive technology to improve the quality of life for millions of people and fits squarely into our vision for the school.”

According to Westerhoff the new modular water-treatment systems, which will be small enough to fit in the back of a tractor-trailer, will use nanoengineered catalysts, membranes and light-activated materials to change the economics of water treatment.

"NEWT's vision goes well beyond today's technology," said Westerhoff, a senior scientist in ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and co-principal investigator on the NSF grant. "We've set a path for transformative new technology that will move water treatment from a predominantly chemical treatment process to more efficient catalytic and physical processes that exploit solar energy and generate less waste."

The research will include three focus areas: the development of multifunctional engineered nanomaterials to purify water, solar desalination of groundwater, and development of new methods for scaling and fouling control.

Some of the applications for the technologies will include novel under-sink water treatment systems to purify water. The market for this type of point-of-entry water treatment is between $2 billion and $5 billion.

NEWT's water-treatment systems will be able to convert water from any source — including pond water, seawater and floodwater — into drinking water using solar energy, even under cloudy conditions, or other renewable energy sources.

The system's modular units also will be easy to reconfigure to meet desired water-quality levels for virtually any situation. The system will include components that target suspended solids, microbes, dissolved contaminants and salts, and it will have the ability to treat a variety of industrial wastewater according to industry's need for discharge or reuse.

NEWT will focus on applications for humanitarian emergency response, rural water systems and wastewater treatment and reuse at remote sites, including both onshore and offshore drilling platforms for oil and gas exploration.

“NEWT will provide affordable and efficient water treatment systems that remove current trade-offs between cost and performance and between energy consumption and treatment rate,” Westerhoff said. “These advantages will give NEWT products a competitive edge in emerging markets surrounding global health and decentralized water management.”

NEWT's goal is to attract industry funding and become self-sufficient within 10 years. Toward that end, NEWT will carefully select industrial partners from every part of the water market, including equipment makers and vendors, system operators, industrial service firms and others.

Other ASU researchers working with NEWT include:

• Albert Brown, lecturer in environmental resources management in the Polytechnic School
• Adam Carberry, assistant professor in engineering and manufacturing engineering in the Polytechnic School
• Candace Chan, assistant professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy
• Peter Fox, professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment and senior scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability
• Christiana Honsberg, professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering
• Kiril Hristovski, assistant professor in engineering and environmental resource management in the Polytechnic School and senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global
• Mary Laura Lind, assistant professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy and senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability
• Jekan Thanga, assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration

NEWT is one of three new ERCs announced by the NSF today in Washington. These join 16 existing centers that are still receiving federal support.