uOttawa’s Faculty of Engineering at the forefront of protecting Canada’s infrastructure

From understanding the impact of road salt to preparing for “the Big One,” local researchers are helping to create more sustainable and resilient structures
Ioan Nistor in Japan, posing in front of a boat brought ashore by the tsunami.
Prof. Ioan Nistor poses in front of a building and ship destroyed by the 2011 Tohoku tsunami in Japan. (Photo by Ioan Nistor)

How much thought do you give to the roads and bridges you drive over on your daily commute?

Ask an elite team of Ottawa-based researchers, and the answer will likely be “quite a lot.”

The University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Engineering is home to a range of seasoned academics whose work revolves around the study of sustainable and resilient infrastructure. This research area, one of five recently unveiled by the school, leverages the strengths of the faculty’s Department of Civil Engineering.

In addition to regular aging, modern infrastructure also has to withstand both natural and human-caused forces, including tsunamis, hurricanes and the more mundane – but still damaging – road salt.

Design standards for extreme events

Ioan Nistor, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Vice-Dean Graduate Studies for the Faculty of Engineering, is often deployed in the wake of major storms around the world to observe the effects of flooding on critical infrastructure, such as hospitals and major roads.

“We are aiming to design better structures, so that people can take refuge from tsunamis and hurricanes on the higher floors of a building,” he says.

Nistor also studies the effects of flooding and impact on such structures, which is sometimes also caused by the breach of a dam or a dike.

In March 2011, following the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Nistor was deployed with the first international team to observe the impacts on the island nation’s infrastructure, including buildings, bridges, ports and coastal structures.

As a member of the Tsunami Effects and Loads Committee of the American Society of Civil Engineers, he was among those who developed the world’s first ever tsunami design standard in 2016. In the years since, it’s been used in communities all along the western seaboard of the United States, Alaska and Hawaii as new developments go up in tsunami-prone areas.

And though tropical storms are more commonly associated with locales situated further south, Nistor’s work also focuses much closer to home with his research on what some have dubbed “the Big One” – a massive earthquake and tsunami that many in the scientific community believe will hit Vancouver Island and its surrounding areas in the future.

The concern dates back to 1700, when a “mega-tsunami” hit Canada’s west coast as a result of a massive earthquake. Research has shown that such occurrences are cyclical and tend to recur every 300 to 500 years.

“A lot of the research that we do is focusing on the potential impact on the western seaboard of Canada, which is one of the most prone to such extreme events,” says Nistor. “By doing so, we’re literally saving lives.”

Managing aging infrastructure

While the thought of road salt may not conjure up the same fears as a tsunami, the de-icing material is notorious for corroding reinforcing steel and causing major damage to Canada’s critical concrete infrastructure.

At the same time, global warming is also a threat as carbon dioxide lowers the pH level in concrete and increases the vulnerability for reinforcement corrosion. Over time, this erodes a structure’s integrity, shortening its lifespan.

Beatriz Martin-Perez, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, has spent the past 20 years at the forefront of research into concrete deterioration.

Martin-Perez’s research is employed in determining the lifespan of a given structure, including when it will need repairs and replacement.

“It’s not just the technical implications. There are also economical implications as well,” says Martin-Perez.

Though her work largely centres on numerical modelling as a way to project the service life of a structure, Martin-Perez explains that her work can also be used by planners to conduct a lifecycle cost analysis on a building or structure.

“You combine both of them and then you have a good decision-making tool,” says Martin-Perez.

Research in Ottawa

For researchers at the University of Ottawa, being situated in the heart of the nation’s capital provides certain advantages over other Canadian schools.

For the Faculty of Engineering’s Department of Civil Engineering, many of its professors are involved in collaborative projects with government departments, such as the National Research Council.

Martin-Perez, for example, is engaged in a project to look at the effects of global warming on concrete, while Nistor is working with the NRC to develop new coastal structures.

“It provides the means for good collaboration, and as a result of that, good research outcomes,” says Martin-Perez.

Learn more about uOttawa’s Department of Civil Engineering at engineering.uOttawa.ca/civil.