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Hydraulics and Sedimentation Lab Holds Promise of Water Security

Thanos PapanicolaouWater-related issues are quickly shaping up to be a major concern around the world, and a new lab at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, hopes to tackle that concern.

The Hydraulics and Sedimentation Laboratory opened officially this week, with the implications of its research already being felt.

“Thanos Papanicolaou came to UT with a passion for civil engineering and its impact, and our impact on the environment,” said College of Engineering Dean Wayne Davis. “When you look around at the water crisis in California, or some of the other water-related issues closer to home like recent water woes in Atlanta, it’s clear how important this research will be moving forward.

“Those areas of need in our country are his areas of expertise, and we’re extremely happy to have him and his group here.”

Part of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Papanicolaou Research Group, the lab is one of the most advanced in the country and one of the few in the Southeast.

All in all, Papanicolaou said, the group currently has 25 ongoing projects.

“It’s a fast-paced field, and we’ve had phenomenal growth from when we started building this lab little more than a year ago until now,” said Papanicolaou. “We’re located in a strategic place in the Southeast to help study water issues that affect the entire region.

“Along with energy and food, water issues will play a huge part in society’s future moving forward, and it really feeds into both of those subjects as well.”

Papanicolaou’s group gave attendees a look at some the notable equipment. They also described partnerships with various agencies made possible by the lab, including:

  • USDA: Studying where is soil washed into streams is coming from and investment in better farming practices.
  • University of Virginia: Studying riverbeds and their effect on erosion and habitat.
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Science Foundation: Studying the topology around boulders in rivers and how they help diffuse water flow and improve fish habitat.
  • Arizona, New Mexico and Midwestern states: Studying rainfall patterns, improving conservation and waterway health.
  • Transportation departments: Studying scour issues where water flows around bridges and developing warning systems to alert transportation officials to bridge wear and decay in attempt to avoid repeats of bridge collapses like the one in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
  • National Science Foundation-Critical Zone Observatories: Studying the effects of human activity on the first few layers of the earth and predicting ways of developing a sustainable future.

Highlighted by a pair of tractor-trailer-sized water flumes, the lab also features a rain station, sedimentary tools and gauges, and about 75 other pieces of lab equipment.

The group has received numerous grants from NASA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the U.S. Departments of Energy, Transportation, Agriculture and Defense, many of which had members on hand for the lab’s opening.

Papanicolaou stressed the importance of such studies and research, noting that the projects weren’t based on the hypothetical but on current real-world needs.

For Chris Cox, the new head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the lab’s opening served as a reminder of the latest development in a recent string of growth for the department.

“This gives us unique capabilities that we’ve never been able to offer before,” said Cox. “In the last few years we’ve added two Governor’s Chairs (a joint UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory program), four senior faculty members and several other faculty members, and we’ve opened the state-of-the-art John D. Tickle Engineering Building.

“This just adds momentum to our upward trajectory.”

Hydraulics and Sedimentation Laboratory

Papanicolaou Research Group