Climate & Environment


United Kingdom

Understanding Internal Erosion in Embankment Structures

Embankment dams save lives. Along with flood embankments, these strong structures supply us with water, guard us from floods and contribute to power generation. On a global scale, 45,000 large dams were built to withstand all odds, yet what can be done when this power wanes? Research has shown that internal erosion—a process whereby soil particles are “washed out” under the action of water seepage forces—is eating away at the integrity of these superheroes.
With the help of an industrial advisory panel, John Pennefather’s mission as embankment protector is to simulate and model internal erosion at the scale of individual particles in order to study the formation of weak zones in dams or their foundation and assess the vulnerability of existing structures. Thanks to his work, dam engineering design may be improved to prevent collapses and better protect human lives and infrastructures against climate change.
My research focuses on the development of multiphase flow models, suitable for the modelling of densely packed granular materials and the application of these models to assessing the internal instability of earthen dams. Within model development my focus is on immersed boundary methods however a number of lower fidelity models are considered to increase the scope situations which can be modelled. In terms of the application of these models, my primary interest is the initiation and propagation of suffusion and erosion, two of the most prevalent causes of catastrophic dam failure and currently the least well understood from a micro-mechanical perspective.

Giants with feet of clay

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Imperial College London


United Kingdom