With great challenges comes grand solutions

Being an engineer is about finding solutions to problems. Researchers at our School are working hard on effective responses to the multiple challenges of climate change.

Mary OConnell

“The scientific community has done its job," said one of the Australian authors of the much-publicised report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (Joëlle Gergis, The Saturday Paper, 14 August 2021). Clearly, whatever happens now, after the lukewarm outcomes of COP26, the engineering community’s job is far from over.  

Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis Report warned us that climate change, driven by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, is now affecting every continent and ocean on Earth, making extreme events such as heatwaves, wildfires, droughts as well as heavy rainfall and flooding more frequent and severe.  All of the above climatic extreme events are recent NSW experiences. Sadly our state has some of the highest per capita emissions in the world – almost triple the global average.

As UNSW Engineering Dean, and Professor of Civil Engineering, Stephen Foster said earlier in 2021, “We have been equivocating for far too long on rolling out solutions to our changing climate and adapting our industries and livelihoods to meet this challenge.” But he still has hope. “Being an engineer is about finding solutions to problems. With great challenge comes grand solutions, and major events spark accelerated advancement.”

Professor Travis Waller, Head of School at UNSW Civil & Environmental Engineering, has warned, in a co-written article in The Conversation, that the decisions engineers make, if not fully thought through, can have unintended consequences – including building failures and climate change.  Yet Waller too is hopeful. He believes that the upcoming generation will likely displace those who are slow or reluctant to adapt. He points out that “more than 1,900 Australian engineers and nearly 180 engineering organisations have signed a declaration committing them to evaluate all new projects against the need to mitigate climate change.”

Meanwhile, researchers within the School’s Centres and hubs have been working with government, professional bodies, industry and community partners on a wide range of climate change mitigation and adaption processes, including the following:

Coastal & estuarine protection and regeneration - Water Research Laboratory

Chris Drummond from UNSW Water Research Laboratory installing coastal imaging cameras.

More information is at https://www.wrl.unsw.edu.au/news/ipcc-climate-change-report-2021-still-so-much-work-to-do-–-and-we-are-doing-it..

Decarbonised infrastructure - processes and materials - Centre for Infrastructure, Engineering & Safety

The  Innovative Decarbonised Infrastructure (IDI) at CIES aims to research, develop, and commercialise innovative ideas, services and technologies to help industry reduce emissions related to our infrastructure and primary industries. IDI’s vision is aligned with the NSW Government’s Net Zero by 2050, and it will assist government and businesses towards a low carbon economy.  Current projects include:

Decarbonising Transport. Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation & Sustainability Assessment Program

  • rCITI has recently joined forces with emerging Australian electric vehicle (EV) producer and supplier Nexport to rapidly accelerate clean technology to solve emission problems originating from transport, with a purpose-built lab for students and researchers to develop zero-emissions technologies for electric buses. 
  • Our sustainability research has shown that half of new car sales should be electric by 2030 if the passenger car sector is to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
  • Ridesharing has attracted growing attention for its potential to improve city mobility as well as to bring significant environmental and economic benefits. Our researchers are investigating theoretical tools and policy implications to assist transport and urban planners.

Electric Bus - Image provided by Nexport

Electric Bus - Image provided by Nexport

Humanitarian engineering programs @ UNSW

Humanitarian Engineering has an important role to play in climate change adaptation. Enhancing data sharing, building resilience to climate variability and integrating traditional knowledge with conventional engineering methods are key areas of focus.  Our humanitarian engineering program aims to equip students to work in challenging and diverse situations to help disadvantaged and disempowered communities and individuals. 

Recent developments include:

Sustainability in Systems. Sustainability Assessment Program

The Sustainability Assessment Program (SAP) team includes researchers with diverse backgrounds: environmental, chemical and materials engineering, environmental science, environmental management, geography and economics.

Examples of sustainability projects include renewable energy scenarios, embodied carbon footprint analysis of the built environment and economy-wide environmental impact assessments. The team undertake scenario modelling of sustainability transitions in the built environment and transport sector.
SAP are also currently investigating the benefits of the circular economy to reduce our earth-damaging waste. NSW has rising waste volumes, and plateauing resource recovery rates. It has been identified that NSW will not reach its target of net-zero emissions by 2050 without a circular economy in action.

Water Resources Climate Change Resilience - Water Research Centre

Amongst many climate-change projects, our academics have been working on:

More information is at: https://www.wrc.unsw.edu.au/news/ipcc-climate-change-report-2021-still-so-much-work-to-do-–-and-we-are-doing-it

Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) - Green roofs Sydney

Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) - Green roofs Sydney

Some of the CVEN staff engaged in climate change focused projects:

Associate Professor Martin Andersen investigates the impact of climate change on recharge mechanisms and amounts in dryland environments, on island groundwater resources, and on carbon cycling processes in the vadose zone and groundwater aquifers, as well as the role of groundwater processes in coastal wetlands for carbon sequestration and emissions (the latter project with WRL’s Associate Professor Will Glamore and Dr Mahmood Sadat-Noori)  

Dr Asal Bidarmaghz is involved in an Urban Underground Climate Change Modelling and Monitoring project. Her aim is to develop a model which, for the first time in Australia, will predict and map underground climate change in the presence of current and future underground structures and resources at the city-scale. It addresses a critical challenge for the future of urbanisation: how do we sustainably manage our underground development?

CVEN Water Research Laboratory’s  Principal Coastal Engineer Matt Blacka leads an  award winning project team at WRL working on advanced coastal monitoring and development of coastal hazard early-warning systems to monitor the impacts of climate change on our beaches and coastlines He says, “Our tools are more dynamic and systems more sophisticated; It’s all about satellites, smart phones, social media, crowd-sourced and machine learning.”

Matt Blacka and  UAV Pilot Chris Drummond have been working with teams from a number of Pacific Island countries to address challenges related to climate change and sustainable development Examples include supporting the Cook Islands Government with technical advice for the preparation of projects related to climate resilience in their infrastructure sector, as well as investigations related to coastal environmental impacts and developments in the WASH sector.

Associate Professor Ron Cox has provided information and guidance for the ports and maritime industry on climate change adaptation for infrastructure. and he and other WRL staff including Brett Miller have worked with Engineers Australia’s National Committee on Coastal and Ocean Engineering (NCCOE) to produce national guidelines on climate change adaptation for coastal engineers and other professionals.

Dr Andrew Dansie, (Dansie) is a Senior Lecturer in Humanitarian Engineering. He has 13 years of experience in the water and development sector spanning the private sector, multilateral organisations, universities, and an NGO.  Potential changes in climate, including more intense extreme events, are expected to pose significant challenges to the capacity of water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) programmes to secure public health in developing countries .Dansie has recently co-authored a report that identifies priority areas for research and data generation in Uganda that can improve equitable access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)—with a specific focus on gender.

Professor Vinayak Dixit, Director of the School’s transport research centre rCITI has recently joined forces with emerging Australian electric vehicle (EV) producer and supplier Nexport to rapidly accelerate clean technology to solve emission problems originating from transport, with a purpose-built lab for students and researchers to develop zero-emissions technologies for electric buses.

Dr Stefan Felder leads WRL’s hydraulic structures experts as they work on resilient and sustainable hydraulic structures that are designed for current and future climate change scenarios while providing ecological solutions in a changing world. One of their latest projects involves boosting fish stocks in the climate challenged Murray Darling river system.

WRL Principal Engineer Dr Francois Flocard, an expert in the field of marine renewables, says that ocean energy, including wave and tidal energy conversion technologies, will likely be a crucial component in the world's emerging blue economy. He and Professor Ian Turner are chief investigators in an ARC Linkage Project (LP180101109) entitled 'Controlling coastlines while generating power' This will see universities, local government and industry partners collaborate to conduct several wave flume and wave basin experiments to assess the potential for wave energy farms to produce power while providing additional protection to beaches or ports.  WRL is also rapidly increasing its activities and expertise in the field of offshore marine renewables.

Professor Stephen Foster is involved in several green concrete research projects with colleagues Ailar Hajimohammadi, Ali Kashani, Taehwan Kim, and David Rey including Cost-effective green concrete with recycled glass, Trialling recycled glass in geopolymer concrete, and Concrete mixes for durability: a hybrid mathematical optimisation approach (ARC-linkage).

Professor Linlin Ge’s remote sensing and earth observation research team safeguard sites for carbon capture and storage through monitoring subtle ground surface deformation due to CO2 injection, using a range of remote sensing satellites.

Sea level rise will not only impact the 10% of the world’s population who live less than 10 metres above sea level, they will impact our freshwater resources, as rising tides flood precious estuaries and impact river systems. The eco engineering group at WRL led by Associate Professor William Glamore, have locally developed the “Tidal Replicate Method” which could save millions of hectares of coastal wetlands worldwide from permanent inundation.  

Dr Ailar Hajimohammadi’s research project with industry partners John Holland on the use of glass waste in geopolymer concrete, and her research on Hempcrete are extremely relevant to the circular economy and emission-reducing technologies.

UNSW Scientia Associate Professor Fiona Johnson’s work has included quantifying the impacts and risks of mining on precious water supplies.  A/Prof Johnson is also  active, along with Dr Andrew Dansie in humanitarian engineering student programs. 

Dr Ali Kashani has coordinated the  Innovative Decarbonised Infrastructure (IDI) which aims to research, develop, and commercialise innovative ideas, services and technologies to help industry reduce emissions related to our infrastructure and primary industries. IDI’s vision is aligned with the NSW Government’s Net Zero by 2050, and it will assist government and businesses towards a low carbon economy. Kashani’s own work with the CIES Construction Automation Laboratory aims to enable new methods of digital 3D printing in the construction industry by addressing the reinforcement issue and other main challenges of construction 3D printing.

Professor Nasser Khalili’s team is working on the CRC-P project on the use of plastic and cardboard wastes in value-added asphalt additives aim to recover 3000 tonnes of material per year which would otherwise be exported as waste or landfilled.

Professor Stuart Khan continues to work towards a more efficient urban water system, with purified recycled water for drinking closing the loop and ensuring urban water supplies.

Professor Michael Manefield’s research team focusses on development of sustainable technologies for contaminated site remediation, wastewater treatment and organic waste processing. They study and manipulate naturally occurring microorganisms involved in pollutant degradation and work with industry to promote uptake of more sustainable approaches to managing the waste we generate. See https://www.manefield.com

Professor Lucy Marshall and Scientia Associate Professor Fiona Johnson assess (and reduce) modelling uncertainty under climate change, and are developing innovative  ecohydrology models that simulate both hydrology and ecology in an increasingly warming world.

Professor Denis O’Carroll continues to assess the extent to which greening urban environments can help mitigate against the impact of climate change through reducing the urban heat island effect as well as an provide effective stormwater management.  With a particular focus on green roofs, his work has shown their tremendous benefits in several regions throughout the world, depending on the climate.

Dr Veljko Prodanovic  and Dr Kefeng Zhang  at WaterGUM help cities around the world to adopt a more sustainable system of urban water management, by researching on the use of biofilters, wetlands and green walls to treat stormwater, greywater and ground water. These low-energy green technologies enable the removal of critical pollutants, pathogens and even micropollutants. These multifunctional systems also provide amenity and cooling benefits in our urban environment, assisting our cities to stay cool as urban temperatures rise under the impact of global warming.

Professor Ashish Sharma assesses the impact of climate change on hydrology and water resources, including extensive work on extreme rainfall under climate change, estimating design floods in a more meaningful way, issuing seasonal forecasts for water resources management.

Professor Ian Turner and Dr Francois Flocard are chief investigators in an ARC Linkage Project (LP180101109) entitled 'Controlling coastlines while generating power' This will see universities, local government and industry partners collaborate to conduct several wave flume and wave basin experiments to assess the potential for wave energy farms to produce power while providing additional protection to beaches or ports.

Professor David Waite’s team design solar-powered water purifying technologies for remote communities.

Professor Tommy Wiedmann, Professor of Sustainability Research in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is promoting the circular economy to reduce our earth-damaging waste.  It has been identified that NSW will not reach its target of net-zero emissions by 2050 without a circular economy in action

“Some things will have to change,” says Wiedmann. “This doesn’t mean we have to go back to the stone age, but we need to work on development that respects ecological limits and leads to more equity in the world.” This means government, industry (producers) and individuals need to all pull together towards sustainability. And, from micro to macro level, there are solutions.