Problems We Solve

The work of civil and environmental engineers is, quite simply, everything you see around you (and quite a bit that you don’t). The buildings, the highways, the parks, the waterways, the electrical grid, cell phone towers. Civil and environmental engineers have a hand in all of the systems and structures that make our lives possible. They also play a major role in tackling some of the world’s grand challenges.

Disaster Recovery and Resilience

Hermann Fritz stands on a portion of the breached levee along the Industrial Canal in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. This levee protected the city's Lower 9th Ward, where most of the fatalities from Katrina occurred. Fritz traveled to the region after the storm to help assess damage and infrastructure performance. (Photo: Andrew Fuggle)The most devastating tsunami in recorded history swept ashore in Sumatra, Indonesia, in December 2004. It washed away entire communities and killed more than 250,000 people. Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans and caused more than $100 billion in damage across the Gulf Coast. Haiti is still recovering from a 2010 earthquake that wrecked the island nation. Our engineers are among the first to respond to these kinds of disasters, measuring their impact and collecting vital data to help strengthen communities against future devastation. They work to build better levies, reinforce vulnerable buildings, recycle concrete into stronger structures, protect utility and communications systems, restore services more quickly, and ultimately, to protect lives.

Fixing Our Nation's Failing Infrastructure

The view through a hole in one of the test walls Ph.D. student Laura Redmond built to mimic the lightly reinforced concrete frames common throughout the Caribbean. Structures made with these types of walls can be among the most vulnerable buildings in earthquakes. Redmond’s work tested different connection details between the wall and column on the performance of these buildings. A second, untested wall is visible in the background. (Photo: Gary Meek)The American Society of Civil Engineers’ infrastructure report card says the United States has much work to do to fix crumbling roads and bridges; inadequate transportation, garbage and sewer systems; and vulnerable dams, ports and airports. Across the globe, the challenges are just as significant. And for growing countries, all of that infrastructure must be created in the first place. We’re designing the replacements for that outdated infrastructure and creating new approaches to those systems. We’re also creating new sensors and approaches to monitor our infrastructure so we can prioritize the needs and prevent catastrophic failures.

Population Growth and Urban Density

Technology Square is a bustling corridor with office space, retail and restaurants, and nearby residential areas in the heart of Midtown Atlanta. (Photo: Raftermen Photography)The world is becoming more crowded everyday, with global population projected to exceed 9 billion people in the coming decades. Almost all of that growth will come in emerging economies, where the lack of modern infrastructure leads to a variety of health concerns — poor access to water or poor water quality, air pollution, inadequate systems for the collection or treatment of wastes and trash. Civil and environmental engineers will create those systems and protect those lives. We’re also assembling knowledge to build the cities where two-thirds of the Earth’s population will live by 2050 as well as the systems — water, electricity, sewer, transportation, communication — that density will require. We are modeling future scenarios for city and regional development so we know how and where we should grow as well as what will be required to meet the needs of future generations.

Traffic and Transit

Downtown Atlanta skyline and the Interstate 75/Interstate 85 “Downtown Connector” highway that bisects the city as seen from Midtown Atlanta. (Photo: Fitrah Hamid)Roads are clogged. Transit options work extremely well in some areas and are virtually non-existent in others. Some cities’ bicycle infrastructure allows residents to skip cars, buses and trains altogether while in other communities, bike riders must fight for space on roads and sidewalks. How we fix the transportation issues we have and plan for mobility of the future falls to civil and environmental engineers. We’re studying the relationships between the built environment and our transportation systems so we can improve community designs to foster mobility, encourage healthy living, and balance economic opportunities with personal well-being. Our engineers also study how people use transportation so we can make better decisions about how we get from place to place and what infrastructure we’ll need to do it.

Safe Drinking Water and Clean Air

After a hurricane-induced landslide washed away towns near Chinandega, Nicaragua, many families were relocated by aid organizations to higher ground near the city dumpsite. Families spent eight hours each day searching through smoldering trash piles looking for recyclables and scrap metal they could sell. Although a local non-profit had offered to assist families in moving to a safer and healthier place, many were afraid of losing the small income they were guaranteed by re-selling trash. Student Heidi Vreeland collected air quality measurements around the dump for a comparative community study to provide preliminary estimates of exposure to dangerous airborne toxins. (Photo: Rajkumar Krishnan)Clouds of pollution hang over major metropolitan areas like Beijing and London and Los Angeles. Polluted air discolors landmarks like the Taj Mahal and leads to thousands of premature deaths every year. Inadequate sanitation systems contaminate water supplies in developing countries, causing outbreaks of disease and spreading dangerous pathogens. That happens, too, in places like rural Alabama. In Flint, Michigan, corrosive water pulled lead from pipes and resulted in a public health crisis. We’re studying the effects of air quality on people’s health, identifying the key sources of pollution, and designing systems to limit airborne toxins and pathogens. Our engineers are developing new water-testing methods that make it easy for communities to ensure their water is safe. They’re designing systems that protect water supplies and manage waste. And they’re creating new genetic techniques to identify microbes that contaminate water and track them to their sources.

Safeguarding Our Water Resources

The marshlands of Sapelo Island, Georgia. (Photo: Brett Israel)As the world’s population skyrockets toward 9 billion in the coming decades, the demand for water for drinking, power production, agriculture, even recreation will continue to grow. Without big changes, our water needs likely will outstrip the supply. Plus, it’s not always clear how to best manage water so that everyone gets what they need — everyone has their own ideas about which uses are most important. That’s led to fights in Africa over use of the Nile River and a prolonged court battle among Alabama, Florida and Georgia over water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin. Civil and environmental engineers are responsible for finding new ways to safely deliver and allocate the water we have — like new water-based systems and infrastructure that work in concert with one another, instead of independently, or new ways to use water more than once. We’re designing new technology but also developing new connections among engineers, scientists, policymakers and stakeholders to protect our water future.

Energy Efficiency and Alternative Energy

Rooftop solar panels on Georgia Tech’s Engineered Biosystems Building. (Photo: Josh Meister)The ramifications of growing population and burgeoning economies in the developing world also means we’re using more energy resources. Traditional sources of fuel, like coal, supply much of that energy, but with a cost: literally tons of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change and pollution. Our researchers are deep into work to help change our energy mix, finding new ways to use alternative sources like wind, solar and natural gas. Transportation of people and goods accounts for more than a quarter of all energy use in the United States. We’re working to plan our communities and our transportation systems to encourage energy-efficient mobility, and we’re studying the financial implications of alternative energy sources. We’re also developing new technologies that will help us store energy underground and tap into new sources like methane hydrate. That alone could be a larger hydrocarbon resource than all of the world's oil, natural gas and coal resources combined — potentially the world’s next energy game-changer.

Sustainability

All of our work is infused with the demands of making our society more sustainable so that we can protect our world’s resources while meeting people’s needs. We’re working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from infrastructure and transportation, develop new uses for coal fly ash to keep it out of landfills, find ways to make concrete using more sustainable ingredients and techniques, understand how microbes help clean up oil on beaches after oil spills, reduce the environmental impacts of manufacturing, and make our economy more sustainable by understanding how economic activity and energy use interact. We’re also designing adaptations that will help our communities weather a changing climate.