Breaking new ground on buried infrastructure

Dr Nicole Metje on how the University’s pioneering infrastructure research could influence the sustainable cities of the future.

Dr Nicole Metje

Ever wondered how your gas, electricity, water and broadband are supplied to your house? Or what those workers digging a big hole in the road are looking for?

Most utility services, including water, gas, electricity and telecommunications are distributed via buried cables or pipework of some kind. Much of this utility infrastructure, which can be more than 200 years old, lies under the nation’s roads; plus there are old sewers, some dating from Roman times, redundant mineshafts and foundations on brownfield sites.

With so much infrastructure under our feet, it can be a big problem trying to locate pipes and cables when something goes wrong or if they need to be replaced, which can lead to excavations in the wrong place and traffic congestion.

Many civil engineering constructions and interventions also require us to open up the ground. This can be a risky procedure because, as well as not knowing precisely where to dig, we also often don’t know the condition of the ground (ie, density variations, water content, strength). This is why we carry out site investigations.

Current sensing technologies are limited in terms of resolution and depth penetration. At Birmingham, a collaboration between civil engineers – like myself – and physicists is bringing a new capability to underground sensing by exploiting quantum technology (QT). The new sensors we are developing, especially the Quantum Technology Gravity sensors, promise to add to our arsenal of sensing technologies and fill a potential gap.

This work is part of research that will be carried out in our new world-leading National Buried Infrastructure Facility, which will support research, education and training to allow our academics to carry out work at almost full scale.

With better knowledge of where existing infrastructure is, what condition it is in and the ground it is buried in, we will be able to use our underground space much more sustainably, reduce the risk of inadvertently damaging buried assets during excavation (with potentially dangerous consequences), reduce delays due to unnecessary work and reduce costs due to project over-runs. By using underground resources such as groundwater, heat and minerals more effectively, and freeing space above ground for green corridors and sustainable transport, our cities of the future could offer us a better quality of life.

Did you know?

About a mile of artificial mineshaft tunnel twists around in the earth beneath the University’s Edgbaston campus. Built in 1905 to give mining students a taste of a working life underground, the ‘mine’ closed in the 1960s, when the teaching of mining at Birmingham ended, but the tunnel remains.

Nicole features in the University’s new Heroes advertising campaign.