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Earthquakes: UMaine testing methods to prevent soil from collapsing

Earthquakes: UMaine testing methods to prevent soil from collapsing
Earthquakes: UMaine testing methods to prevent soil from collapsing


Scientists at the University of Maine are working with researchers in Oregon to stabilize the soil.

ORONO, Maine — Professors and graduate students at the University of Maine are pioneering ways to reduce the harmful effects of earthquakes known as “liquefaction.”

That's when intense shaking from an earthquake turns solid ground into something more soup-like. Researchers use natural bacteria already present in the soil to try to prevent this from happening.

After seeing the aftermath of a 7.5-magnitude earthquake followed by a tsunami that shook parts of Indonesia in 2018, Aaron Gallant will never forget those images.

“We've seen this kill thousands of people,” Gallant said seriously. “It's an acute event, and when it happens quickly, it's catastrophic.”

Gallant, an associate professor of geotechnical engineering at the University of Maine, visited Indonesia with a team of experts to collect data and better understand the impact of extreme events. The team's report was published by the Association for the Recognition of Extreme Geotechnical Events, which organized the team.

Gallant traveled to Oregon to work with researchers from Portland State University on a new way to fortify earthquake-prone soil. The region faces a potentially nightmare scenario unless work is done to stabilize the state's main fuel storage facility against a major earthquake, which will come sooner or later.

Diane Moog is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Portland State University.

“The earthquake will happen,” Mogg said matter-of-factly. “We don't know exactly when, but it will happen.”

As part of the project, researchers are injecting nitrogen-rich compounds into wells at a test site near the Portland Airport.

“What we do is feed the microbes with nutrients, which accelerates the nitrification process that generates the gas,” Gallant explained.

This gas-filled soil acts as a shock absorber, resulting in a reduced risk of liquefaction when shaking during an earthquake causes the ground to liquefy.

Teams from both universities are using nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation to see if the new method could be a solution to protecting critical infrastructure. Gallant is working on the project with Louis Zambrano, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maine.

“We're attacking it here at UMaine by trying to understand how long the gas is going to stay there,” Gallant added.

Zambrano will analyze the data collected from the site. The search is also personal for him, as he lost several friends following a major earthquake in his native Ecuador in 2016.

“This is key infrastructure that we need to ensure that it will function in a disaster like this,” Zambrano said.

When they return to Maine, scientists will test soil samples from Oregon using a compact machine that can simulate an earthquake.

“We can change the applied conditions to simulate different earthquake strengths,” Gallant explained.

The goal is to isolate vulnerable areas against earthquakes and make this method cost-effective and accessible worldwide within the next five to ten years.

“This type of method can be applied under an existing building, existing structure or fuel tanks,” Moog explained.

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