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GeoEngineering Centre's work making a ‘real impact’

[Dr. Kerry Rowe]
Kerry Rowe and his colleagues at the GeoEngineering Centre are studying the use and performance of geosynthetics and geomembranes, such as those used to prevent the escape of contaminants from landfills. (University Communications)

For Kerry Rowe, a fellow of the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific society (the Royal Society based in London UK, 1660), and his colleagues in the GeoEngineering Centre, winning awards for their research is nice. However, the real reward, says the professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, is knowing that the work they are doing is having a lasting impact on people’s lives and the environment.

“While we write papers and win awards, really the most important aspect, at least to me, is the fact that people are using it,” says Dr. Rowe, the Canada Research Chair in geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineering. “It’s affecting regulations around the world. Regulators are using it. Manufacturers are using it. Designers are using it. Manufacturers are using our research as a basis for improving their products. We find something’s not working so well and the manufacturer is going to find a way to make it work better.

“That’s the real impact of our work. It’s actually being used to protect the environment.”

Dr. Rowe’s area of study is focused on the use and performance of geosynthetics and geomembranes such as those used to prevent the escape of contaminants from landfills.

His most recent award, picked up earlier this year, was for the best paper published in 2013 in Geosynthetics International, published by the Institution of Civil Engineers in the UK and considered one of the top journals in the field.  The paper, which examines methods of increasing how long a plastic geomembrane used in the bottom liner of a landfill will last, was co-authored by Dr. Rowe, Fady Abdelaal, and Richard Brachman, all of Queen’s.

Dr. Rowe also won the award in 2013 for an article written with Melissa Chappel, Dr. Brachman and Andrew Take. That team then won the International Geosynthetics Society Award and Gold Medal for “outstanding contribution to the understanding of wrinkling in geomembranes” for their pioneering work on this topic.

Dr. Rowe says he was drawn to the field by Love Canal, an environmental disaster in the 1970s where a neighbourhood was built adhacent to a toxic waste dump in Niagara Falls, NY. While many things have improved around landfills in the decades that have followed, one of the biggest issues he’s found is that many of the design guidelines were developed in the late 1980s and 1990s when very little was known about geomembranes and geosynthetics.

The GeoEngineering Centre is changing that.

“What we’ve been doing over the past 20 years is really coming to understand the long-term performance of these materials, because they need to last for many, many decades to centuries, depending on the size of the facility, to provide protection,” he says. “We are, I think it’s fair to say, the world leaders in doing that. We’re interested in the long-term performance through accelerated tests but also field testing. We have field test sites literally from the Arctic to the Antarctic.”

These are some extreme conditions but geosynthetics and geomembranes often face extreme stresses, increasingly in the mining industry for waste materials and tailings. Some of these mining applications are over 200 metres in height, says Dr. Rowe. They are utterly massive.

“The vast majority of geosynthetics are now sold in the mining industry,” he says. “We are working on heap leach pads and the selection of appropriate geomembranes because they are being used, but no one, until we started doing it, was doing the research.”

The research is informing designers and helping manufacturers create new products with better performing characteristics.

“It’s protection of the health and safety of the environment that is the motivation for our work. What we are trying to do is prevent Love Canal-type situations from arising,” he says. “We’ve got a fantastic group of people, in terms of faculty and really tremendous post-docs and graduate students that we have working on this.”