An engineer's focus on fixing the nation's infrastructure gains momentum
October 31, 2013
Four years ago, America's energy infrastructure system earned a "D+" and the water infrastructure system earned a "D" on its report card, issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Unfortunately, not much has changed. The professional society gave energy and water infrastructure a D+ for 2013.
"Pipelines provide the lifeblood to society by transporting energy, water, waste, and other critical services.Our pipeline infrastructure systems was created in an era of inexpensive fossil fuel, stable climate, growing water demand, and rapidly expanding gross domestic product," said Sunil Sinha, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.
"Unfortunately, the pipeline infrastructure is aging and already operating outside its design limits. How a nation operates, retrofits, and expands its pipeline infrastructure will help determine the quality of life for future generations and that nation's competitiveness in the global economy," he added.
Sinha predicted that if the U.S. is to meet important challenges of the 21st century, a new paradigm for the building and retrofitting of critical pipeline infrastructure system is required, one that addresses the conflicting goals of diverse economic, environment, societal, and policy interests.
Sinha, a 2007 recipient of a National Science Foundation CAREER award for research in the area of sustainable water infrastructure management systems, is leading efforts to prioritize work that could change the energy and water pipeline industry to make it sustainable and resilient.
"More than 5 million miles of pipeline exist in the U.S. alone, and worldwide, countries annually install approximately 500,000 miles of pipeline with a market value of more than $50 billion," Sinha added. "Pipelines crisscross our communities near our homes and schools, yet little attention is paid to this critical infrastructure until catastrophic failures occur."
As examples of high-profile accidents, he pointed to several incidents, including a leak of thousands of barrels of crude oil into a North Dakota field from a pipeline in September 2013, Exxon Mobil's Mayflower pipeline ruptured in a suburban neighborhood in Arkansas, forcing residents from homes in March 2013, and Enbridge Inc., shut its 345,000 barrels per day Athabasca pipeline after 1,400 barrels of oil spilled in Northeast Alberta in June 2012.
Also, water main breaks in Washington's Maryland suburbs in January of 2011 and in December of 2012 washed out roads and required emergency helicopter rescues. In 2010 a pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., caused the death of eight people. Since 2007, highly publicized leaks of buried pipe containing radioactive materials have occurred at two nuclear facilities. The impacts and damages from failing pipeline infrastructure systems is growing.
Since Sinha's arrival at Virginia Tech in 2007, he has methodically taken a number of steps in researching how to sustain both energy and water pipeline infrastructure.
In 2008, Sinha and Marc Edwards, who holds CEE's Charles P. Lunsford Professorship and is the recipient of an NSF Presidential Faculty Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellow award, teamed to establish the Virginia Tech Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) Center of Excellence (ICE) in Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management (SWIM). Edwards was also dubbed the "Plumbing Professor" by Time magazine for his internationally recognized expertise on drinking water.
Through the institute, Sinha has since worked to develop an integrated water and wastewater pipe management system that uses sensor technologies and non-destructive testing tools. This research has the potential to change the utilities' ability to rate the condition and performance of its pipeline infrastructure system and to develop a rational repair, rehabilitation, and replacement program.
In 2010 Sinha led the development of a National Pipeline Infrastructure Database. This database is "like a Wikipedia for the drinking water and wastewater utilities except users do not have editing privileges," Sinha said. Instead, this database will be maintained and updated by the institute. It is providing case studies, synthesis reports, lists of vendors, consultants, and contractors on a regional basis who deal in a particular technology, and comments from end users about individual experiences with a particular technology.
Called WATERiD, and subtitled the WATER Infrastructure Database, "The database ensures a single point, information center for the utilities where they can find all the relevant information that will help in expediting the decision making process for selecting appropriate condition assessment and renewal engineering technologies," Sinha said.
His work to develop this database was supported by the Water Environmental Research Foundation. It awarded him two grants, valued at about a million dollars through the Environmental Protection Agency's Aging Water Infrastructure Research Program.
Sinha also helped spearhead the PBS documentary "Liquid Assets: The Story of Our Water Infrastructure," which aired on PBS affiliates across the country at the beginning of this decade. This documentary throws light on a long-buried problem - America's aging infrastructure system.
Most recently, Sinha organized a workshop, "Smart Pipeline Infrastructure Network for Energy and Water (SPINE)," which focused on transforming the energy and water pipeline industry to make it sustainable and resilient. Attendees included industry leaders from the water, chemical, nuclear, hazardous materials, oil, and gas fields. Government officials from the Department of Homeland Security, Congressional Research Services, Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation, and Electric Power Research Institute also participated.
At this meeting, the attendees reached a consensus on a prioritized list of how to transform the pipeline industry, "creating an intelligent, responsive continent-wide pipeline infrastructure system that is fully monitored and dynamically controlled to allow for higher reliability, cost-effectiveness, efficiency, sustainability, security, and resiliency," Sinha said.
Under Sinha's leadership, Virginia Tech has partnered with Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, Louisiana Tech, the University of Puerto Rico -- Mayaguez, and several international universities to pursue a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center (NSF ERC) on the Smart Pipeline Infrastructure Network for Energy and Water (SPINE).
"We hope to serve as a national and international resource for the energy and water pipeline industries, relevant federal, state, and local agencies, and the public. Our hub would be dedicated to integrating and coordinating high-impact, interdisciplinary research, and would educate the next generation of science and engineering leaders in sustainable technologies," Sinha added.