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The University of Southampton

National Infrastructure Laboratory to transform future of UK transport

Published: 27 June 2017
NIL artist's drawing
Construction of the National Infrastructure Laboratory is underway in Southampton

The University of Southampton’s role in helping to define the future of the UK’s transport infrastructure is becoming clear as the new National Infrastructure Laboratory takes shape.

Currently under construction at Southampton’s Boldrewood Innovation Campus, the Laboratory will be situated adjacent to Lloyds Register’s Global Technology Centre and other cutting-edge resources. When complete, the Laboratory will house double and single-height facilities for testing large-scale structures, components and materials at a range of scales and under a range of environmental conditions and temperatures, with a major focus on transport infrastructure, particularly rail.

Southampton is part of the UK Collaboratorium for Research in Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC), involving 14 universities carrying out world-leading research through a network of experimental facilities and urban laboratories. The National Infrastructure Laboratory in Southampton represents an investment of £48m including funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy (BEIS) and project partners.

David Richards, Professor in Ground Engineering and Associate Dean (Infrastructure) in Engineering and the Environment says: “The new national laboratory in Southampton will be tasked with finding ways of improving the efficiency of maintaining and upgrading existing infrastructure.

“We’ll also be developing more cost-effective ways of designing and constructing new infrastructure including the use of lightweight materials to meet the future challenges of rail transport, for example to improve network resilience to the effects of climate change and increasing demands,” he continues.

“Inadequacies in current UK infrastructure cost the UK an estimated £2m a day,” Professor Richards adds. “UKCRIC will allow academia, industry, government and end users to collaborate to upgrade infrastructure and reduce its cost to the nation. UKCRIC will lead to the development of new materials, techniques and novel technologies, as well as research into issues such as investment in rail systems, roads and flood and water management.”

Professor Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, says: “Upgrading the UK’s infrastructure is a key priority and will help to deliver prosperity for the nation. UKCRIC provides a unique opportunity for the universities to coordinate on best practice, share data and lessons learned, as well as providing a focus for industrial engagement. It will help to develop a commercial resource with a considerable export potential.

“The research undertaken at these new facilities will help us to understand how we can make the nation’s infrastructure more resilient to extreme events and more adaptable to changing circumstances, and how it can provide services that are more affordable, accessible and useable for the whole population,” he concludes.

The laboratory will incorporate a 6m diameter geotechnical centrifuge and associated sample and model preparation facilities, and will be used to undertake scaled physical model tests allowing ‘whole life’ long-term behaviour of infrastructure to be simulated and observed. Geotechnical centrifuges allow failure mechanisms and soil-structure interactions to be studied using real soil samples.

This important investment will also extend the University’s research capabilities into offshore engineering infrastructure resilience, where challenges such as pipeline and cable stability in the North Sea, cost-effective renewable energy infrastructure, the exploitation of the UK’s remaining oil and gas reserves and the affordable decommissioning of redundant oil and gas infrastructure are major issues. These applications have synergies that draw on expertise currently within Southampton’s team, and offer new opportunities to broaden Southampton’s partnerships with EPSRC and industry and deliver impact on critical UK energy infrastructure.

To support the development of this important research theme, Professors Dave White and Susan Gourvenec, from the University of Western Australia (UWA), have been appointed. They will take up their posts at Southampton in September 2017.

Professor White has been a Professor at UWA since 2007 and has held the Shell EMI Chair in Offshore Engineering at UWA for the past 5 years. He is Director of the UWA-hosted Research Hub for Offshore Floating Facilities, supported by industry and the Australian Research Council. Professor White is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Australasian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and the Institution of Engineers Australia.

Professor Gourvenec’s specialism is offshore geotechnical engineering. Susan joined the Centre for Offshore Foundation Systems (COFS) at UWA in 2001 after post-doctoral study in Cambridge following her PhD at Southampton. She is co-author of the book Offshore Geotechnical Engineering and leads delivery of offshore geomechanics courses within UWA’s Masters courses and to external industry.  She also serves as an elected member of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) committee responsible for offshore geotechnics, leading a task group concerned with regulations for foundation design.  Susan is a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia.

Dean of Engineering and the Environment and Professor of Geotechnical Engineering, William Powrie comments: “These strategic investments in facilities and people by the nation and the University are a testament to the massive contribution that Southampton has made, and continues to make, to sustainable infrastructure over the past decade and more.

“They align exactly with the University’s strategy, and give us an excellent basis from which to develop the strength and excellence of existing activities and grow new ones,” he explains. “I am especially delighted that we have recruited two such internationally known professors back to the UK, in an area of national and global importance in which we can now begin to exploit opportunities and synergies with the National Oceanography Centre Southampton and Lloyd's Register to the full.”

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