The Earth’s natural cycles and the built environment impact and are impacted by mankind. As researchers in the College of Engineering study these environments … from the atomic to the planetary scale … they develop unique perspectives of these systems and how they work together. Researchers observe, measure, and analyze air, water, soil, and rock formations to make recommendations on how best to preserve the environment. They further use their knowledge to design and monitor waste disposal sites, safeguard water supplies, reclaim contaminated soil, and help develop building codes for stronger, safer structures. They also study the composition and structure of the physical aspects of the Earth in order to make predictions about its future.

Faculty Experts in the Environment

  • Flight of the Skyscraper
  • New Center Focuses on Nuclear Fuel, Waste and Forensics
  • Making Mini Environments Count - Paul W. Bohn

Flight of the Skyscraper

Carl Sandburg wrote, “By day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul.” While a skyscraper’s soul may be in question, skyscrapers definitely move or are buffeted by winds and other loads in the city. Since 2001, professors Ahsan Kareem and Tracy Kijewski-Correa have been active in developing sensing and virtual data acquisition technologies and cyber infrastructure to enable full-scale, in-situ observations of structures in their natural environments. What it amounts to is recording the “health” of a structure in real-time as a building reacts to various loads acting upon it.

These faculty have been executing the first full-scale systematic validation of the performance of tall buildings using three signature skyscrapers in Chicago. Their efforts earned the 2008 State-of-the-Art of Civil Engineering Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Their work has also been showcased in magazines such as Engineering News Record, ASCE’s Civil Engineering Magazine, and GPS World. The program has now grown to include signature structures in South Korea, Canada, and Dubai, as well as archival data collected from the infamous Boston Hancock.

New Center Focuses on Nuclear Fuel, Waste and ForensicsStudies of actinides (the elements that are the basis of nuclear energy) and their by-products help address the environmental consequences of weapons programs, as well as the release of nuclear materials into the environment from nuclear energy production. For example, novel materials that can work in extremely high radiation fields could lead to the development of advanced waste forms for safely storing the unwanted by-products of nuclear power. Likewise, the same material could offer properties that would deter these by-products from leaching into the environment.

Research in the newly formed Center for Materials Science of Actinides, an Energy Frontier Research Center, seeks to understand and control materials that contain actinides at the nanoscale so as to lay the scientific foundation for advanced nuclear energy systems that may provide much more energy while creating less nuclear waste. In addition, researchers in the center are working to develop new technologies and processes for the safe handling and disposition of radioactive materials.

Making Mini Environments Count Current lab-on-a-chip technologies provide fast and relatively accurate diagnostics. They are, however, severely limited by small fluid samples, sample integrity, and toxic samples. Led by Paul W. Bohn in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, a team of researchers from across the University has developed methods to capture individual molecules of interest in minute (mass-limited) quantities and create intelligent chemical reaction chambers in the space of a nanopore. This allows information to be extracted from samples as small as a few hundred thousand molecules, so that the data can then be used to affect solutions. Real-life scenarios could include isolating a virus or infectious disease in a country with limited medical and diagnostic resources, detecting a pollutant in a remote water source, or identifying a bacterial contaminant in a food source while it was still in a processing plant.