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Interview: Professor Buenfeld

Feb 08 2008 00:04
Ton Van den bremer
Our intrepid reporter, Ton van der Bremmer, corners another member of the faculty to find out what exactly they do...
Libya's Great Man Made River project - real engineering!

Struck by ?the mismatch between society?s need for durable infrastructure and the lack of evidence that this could be achieved,? Professor Nick Buenfeld decided to dedicate his career to the long-term performance of concrete structures. Livic spoke to him about his career, his research and the extensive work he has done on the world?s largest civil engineering project: the Great Man-Made River Project in Libya.

Career, Research & Consultancy

Before coming to Imperial, Nick Buenfeld, who received his BSc in Civil Engineering from the University of Leeds, worked on the design of large structures for Mott MacDonald, where he came across clients who were demanding longer lifetimes for their structures. At the time engineers were not sure how to achieve this. Encouraged by his employer he came to Imperial to do an MSc in Concrete Structures, stayed on to do a PhD, then became research fellow, lecturer, reader and finally Professor of Concrete Structures in 2000. The research of Professor Buenfeld and his team of researchers with backgrounds in various scientific disciplines focuses on producing more durable concrete, predicting the lifetime of existing structures and assessing, monitoring and repairing these concrete structures.

When I meet Professor Buenfeld in his office hidden in a small maze formed by the research labs of his concrete durability group, which have expanded significantly in size and number in recent years, it proves difficult to decide which of his consulting projects to discuss, as there are a lot of interesting engineering projects across the globe that Professor Buenfeld has been involved in. The concrete for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link was first produced and tested in our Department under Professor Buenfeld?s supervision. Following the catastrophic collapse of the oil platform Sleipner in 1991 in a fjord in Norway resulting from joint failure of the structural concrete, Professor Buenfeld was asked to investigate the cracks developing in the storage containers of the Troll Oil Platform 300 meters below sea surface during severe storm conditions. The state of concrete of the London Underground Jubilee Line Extension he can monitor live from his screen. Fortunately, it seems, a lot of the other projects are secret, such as his work as an expert witness in the Tsing Ma Bridge adjudication for which he had to commute to Hong Kong on a fortnightly basis, so that Professor Buenfeld wouldn?t be able to reveal what he grinningly refers to as the ?juicy details?. The most interesting of all is without doubt the Great Man Made River Project in Libya; it is not only the world?s largest civil engineering project, it is also the favourite project of Muammar al-Gaddafi, ?Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution? (his official title) of Libya.

Great Man Made River Project, Libya

When searching for oil in the 1950?s large aquifers with fresh water were found in the Libyan desert that could guarantee the water supply of the Libyan population mainly living in the cities on the Mediterranean coast for many years. When work was started on the project in the 1980?s, one of the objectives was to use the supply of water to make Libya, a country in which the supply of ample quantities of (drinking) water had historically been problematic, self-sufficient for agricultural purposes. It was because of the oil revenues that Libya was able to fund this project at a scale unheard of in the rest of the world entirely by itself. Only the difficulty journalists experience trying to obtain visas and according to some the refusal of some Western states to acknowledge its gigantic scale can explain why so little is know about the project. The Man Made River project consists of a 3000 km long network of pipes the size of a London Underground tube transporting 6.5 million cubic metres water per day. The project with total estimated costs of US$ 25 billion required the excavation of 250 million cubic metres, enough aggregate to build 20 Pyramids of Giza and the pre-stressing wire used for the concrete pipes could be used to wind the earth 280 times.

The Libyan government reached for Professor Buenfeld?s help, when the pipes were starting to deteriorate only 10 years after they had been put in. The reason for this according to Professor Buenfeld was lack of experience of the behaviour of prestressed concrete pipes in the extreme conditions of the Libyan desert. Working on the project is really rewarding, explains Professor Buenfeld, who has been travelling to Libya twice annually for five years now: ?I can make a real difference ? I observe what is being done and suggest improvements and they are usually implemented?. He has to admit: ?it?s the roughest living I do these days?, sleeping in portacabins in the desert with the rest of the crew. Yet, Professor Buenfeld is not complaining - the risk of being hi-jacked has reduced as has his fear of snakes and scorpions.

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