Two North­eastern engi­neering pro­fes­sors have been awarded a $1.2 mil­lion research grant to advance their work in devel­oping a cost-​​effective method to pre­vent ground failure during earth­quakes, a major cause of destruc­tion to build­ings con­structed on water-​​saturated sandy soils.

The solu­tion could be simple: Just add bubbles.

Mishac Yegian, a Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering, and Akram Alshawabkeh, a pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering, were awarded the grant from the National Sci­ence Foundation’s George E. Brown, Jr. Net­work for Earth­quake and Engi­neering Simulation.

While a number of mea­sures exist to pre­vent liq­ue­fac­tion — when solid soil turns to liquid and can no longer hold up the struc­tures it sup­ports — those mit­i­ga­tion tech­niques are often pro­hib­i­tively expen­sive and cannot be applied to sites with existing structures.

Yegian’s and Alshawabkeh’s pre­lim­i­nary research has demon­strated that gen­er­ating gas bub­bles in sat­u­rated sands — a process they call “induced par­tial sat­u­ra­tion” — pre­vents liq­ue­fac­tion during earth­quakes. The tiny gas bub­bles, which fill the spaces between grains of sand, remain entrapped in the soil even during strong earth­quakes. The bub­bles absorb the pres­sure that an earth­quake would oth­er­wise apply to water, pre­venting liquefaction.

The grant will allow the induced par­tial sat­u­ra­tion research to move into the field, where Yegian and Alshawabkeh plan to inject a low con­cen­tra­tion of an environmentally-​​friendly chem­ical into the ground that, with the help of ground water flow and chem­ical reac­tivity, will help gen­erate oxygen gas bub­bles within a sand deposit, a tech­nique that can be used before or after a building is constructed.

The devel­op­ment of a cost-​​effective and prac­tical method to pre­vent liq­ue­fac­tion will have a broad impact on human safety and the pro­tec­tion of prop­erty from the destruc­tion of earthquakes.

We think we have found a cre­ative and daring solu­tion that would have ben­e­fits in the United States and world­wide,” Yegian said. “There would be a whole new industry that could emerge from this work. Engi­neers so often work on build­ings one at a time, but earth­quakes don’t — they hit entire com­mu­ni­ties. We believe our work can help keep entire com­mu­ni­ties safe from earthquakes.”

Work funded by the grant, part of the National Earth­quake Haz­ards Reduc­tion Pro­gram, is being com­pleted in col­lab­o­ra­tion with researchers from other insti­tu­tions including the State Uni­ver­sity of New York at Buf­falo, the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at Austin, Boise State Uni­ver­sity and the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­fornia at Santa Barbara.