Auroop Ganguly, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
In the past, engineers were able to design electrical and water systems to handle weather extremes—heat waves, cold snaps, storms, and drought—simply by understanding and accounting for normal climate fluctuations. But climate change has made extreme events far less predictable in severity and frequency, making it harder to plan for them, says Ganguly.
He and his team are searching for trends in today’s extreme weather to give design engineers and public policymakers a more reliable basis for developing tomorrow’s infrastructure projects.
Spotting those trends requires the analysis of huge amounts of climate and engineering data, according to Ganguly. The trick, he says, is to “extract the small data that we care about”—instances of rare weather events and how they’ve changed from the storms and droughts of the past, and real and potential causes of infrastructure failure.
The ability to apply highly integrated computational analysis techniques to weather data makes Ganguly’s team uniquely suited to help cities and towns build greater structural resiliency.
Ming Wang, professor of civil and environmental engineering
Wang and his team are integrating patented sensing technology and Big Data analytics in a breakthrough project that could transform any delivery fleet, such as the U.S. Postal Service’s, into a fully automated, real-time road inspection system.
Under Wang’s lead, the federally funded VOTERS (Versatile Onboard Traffic Embedded Roaming Sensors) project has already developed a prototype vehicle. Its onboard computer collects multi-sensor data about highway and bridge conditions, from the surface down to a depth of one meter. The computer transmits the readings wirelessly to a control center, where more powerful computers linked to electronic maps analyze and visualize the information.
Wang says VOTERS technology will pinpoint existing and impending structural defects in roadways and gauge bridge resilience to manmade and natural disasters—without causing the traffic tie-ups that go with time-consuming manual inspections. And transportation planners will be able to time maintenance work to actual need.
Jerome Hajjar, professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering
Hurricane Sandy destroyed hundreds of buildings throughout New York and New Jersey. But hundreds more that withstood collapse were so severely damaged they had to be demolished.
What if there were a way to design buildings to minimize the impact of such damage?
At Northeastern’s STReSS lab for Structural Testing of Resilient and Sustainable Systems, Hajjar and his team are doing just that—designing materials and building components that will make structures more resilient to natural and manmade disasters, from hurricanes to earthquakes to terrorist attacks.
One example: Structural “fuses” that absorb destructive energy, the same way electrical fuses absorb overloads. These steel fuses can be removed and replaced, leaving the rest of the building intact.
If we were to work this sort of resilience technology into nationwide building codes, says Hajjar, cities and towns could realize millions of dollars in savings, and, more important, maintain far more sustainable communities.
Ali Abur, professor and chair of electrical and computer engineering
In the next decade, power generation from renewable energy is expected to grow significantly in the U.S. But those resources—solar and wind—are concentrated in the Southwest and the Great Plains, while most of the country’s electricity is consumed across time zones on the coasts.
Matching the power supplied by these renewable sources with the remotely located loads, says Abur, requires a smart power grid that transmits power reliably and efficiently.
He and his team—part of an $18.5 million multi-partner research center—focus on creating next-generation software tools to monitor and control a power grid that incorporates the growing number of renewable sources.
They’re using sophisticated GPS technology, called Phasor Measurement Units, to capture synchronized real-time information about the system’s operating state, which in turn allows utility officials to make timely decisions so that widespread power outages can be avoided.