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NMSU College of Engineering partner in new bio-inspired NSF Geotechnical Engineering Research Center

The New Mexico State University College of Engineering is one of four partner universities in a new National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center to pioneer advances in geotechnical engineering that promise solutions to some of world?s biggest infrastructure development and environmental challenges.


A woman standing assists two women sitting at a laptop with a project.
NMSU Civil Engineering Professor Paola Bandini works with students on transportation projects. Bandini is co-principal investigator for a new bio-inspired NSF Geotechnical Engineering Research Center. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The consortium of university, industry and government partners, led by Arizona State University, 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.

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.

NMSU Associate Professor of Civil Engineering Paola Bandini, CBBG co-principal investigator and lead of the Center?s work at NMSU, said, ?We are looking to create and implement technology that mimics or employs methods developed and perfected by nature over thousands of years to solve complex engineering problems. The ground is our engineered system.?

Along with ASU and NMSU, the Center?s university partners also include the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California, Davis. CBBG?s director is ASU Regents? Professor Edward Kavazanjian, Fulton Professor of Geotechnical Engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.

Engineers and scientists at these four institutions will collaborate to investigate novel methods to use or emulate biological processes for engineering the ground in ways that reduce construction costs while mitigating natural hazards and environmental degradation.

NMSU?s Bandini will lead the Center?s efforts on infrastructure construction, one of four research thrusts of the program.

Bandini has 13 years of geotechnical engineering research and teaching experience. Her research has focused on the application of experimental and numerical methods to geomechanics. Her current research interests include engineering properties of desert and diatomaceous soils, erosion control measures for transportation infrastructure, and sustainable use of materials in civil engineering. As a PI, she has managed more than $2.2 million in grants and contracts from state agencies and private industry. She leads the Geotechnical Instrumentation and Modeling Committee of the Transportation Research Board.

A multidisciplinary team of nine NMSU researchers specialized in civil engineering, environmental engineering, computer science, geological sciences and biology will participate in various CBBG projects.

?It is a great accomplishment that a team of multidisciplinary faculty at NMSU is part of a multi-institutional NSF Center that will advance knowledge in bio-inspired and bio-mediated geotechnical engineering. This is a wonderful opportunity to be able to bring together a diverse team of faculty and students,? said Martha Mitchell, NMSU College of Engineering associate dean of research.

NMSU?s Arrowhead Center will help implement technology transfer and seek patents for technologies developed through CBBG?s research at NMSU.

Melding nature and technology

CBBG?s researchers will endeavor to either employ or emulate biological processes in developing innovative geotechnical methods and technologies.

Much of CBBG?s work will concentrate on developing bio-inspired and bio-mediated 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 soil, making it more resistant to erosion and the destructive forces of earthquakes, and help remove contaminants from the ground.

Other efforts will involve mimicking the performance of tree roots in their natural ability to stabilize soil to design more efficient soil-reinforcement and foundation systems for buildings, bridges and other infrastructure.

CBBG?s researchers also will seek to devise technologies that match some of the subterranean earth-moving and stabilization skills of small mammals and burrowing insects such as ants, which are a hundred times more energy-efficient at tunneling than our current technology. They excavate very carefully and their tunnels almost never collapse. If their methods could be mimicked, they might be used to make underground mining safer.

Similarly, if engineers could design a probe with sensor technology and guidance systems that effectively digs through soil like a mole, it could significantly improve subsurface investigation and characterization to construct more resilient roads, bridges, dams, power plants, pipelines and buildings, and more efficient oil-drilling and mining operations.

Progress in biogeotechnical technologies and engineering also could lead to significant improvements in methods of cleaning up environmental contaminants and restoring land denuded by erosion or industrial-scale resource extraction.

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.
?The level of complexity of the research problems to be addressed by CBBG requires the collaboration of large expert teams and access to state-of-the-art labs and other resources across campuses of the partner universities and industry affiliated to the Center,? said Bandini.

The potentially global impacts of CBBG?s work have attracted more than a dozen companies and state government agencies to sign on to the Center?s industrial affiliates program to support the research. They are joined by 15 universities from around the world to collaborate with CBBG in research and education programs.

A number of agencies that manage large public infrastructure systems ? including the Arizona and New Mexico Departments of Transportation, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Port of Los Angeles ? have expressed interest in collaborating 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 bio-geotechnical engineering and science, as well as promoting diversity within the profession through programs aimed at K-12 schools, community colleges and university undergraduates and graduates.

?NMSU will also lead the diversity and pre-college education programs for the Center,? said Bandini.

At NMSU, Mitchell will serve as director of CBBG?s Diversity program, along with the diversity program coordinator Michele Auzenne, assistant director for the New Mexico Alliance for Minority Participation based at NMSU. NMSU College of Education STEM Outreach Director Susan Brown will be the CBBG?s pre-college director.

The program will 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.

Initial NSF funding will support the new Center for five years. 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 at http://biogeotechnics.org/home.