A panel of women alumnae celebrate 90 years of hydraulics research

Sara Venuleo est actuellement doctorante au LCH. © Alain Herzog / 2018 EPFL

Sara Venuleo est actuellement doctorante au LCH. © Alain Herzog / 2018 EPFL

Six women EPFL alumnae will take to the podium on 8 March to discuss the main challenges in hydraulic engineering, as part of an event commemorating 90 years of hydraulics research in Lausanne. We spoke with event organizer Anton Schleiss, a civil engineering professor at EPFL.

Hydraulics research in French-speaking Switzerland is turning 90 this year. It plays a strategic role in the country’s renewable-energy industry and has changed considerably since Alfred Stucky built the first hydraulics lab in 1928 at what was then the Lausanne School of Engineering - and now EPFL.

To mark this anniversary, EPFL’s Environmental Hydraulics Laboratory (LHE) and Laboratory of Hydraulic Constructions (LCH) will be holding a special event at the school’s SwissTech Convention Center on 8 March. And since that is also International Women’s Day, they asked six female Doctoral-School alumnae to be the guest speakers, discussing the state of hydraulics research in Switzerland and internationally. The event will also include videos by other key figures from both business and academia. 

LCH director Anton Schleiss is the event organizer. He has headed the lab for 21 years, and was the one who wanted to put the spotlight on women researchers. Schleiss is also the president of the International Commission on Large Dams and advocates academic research that is both practical and competitive on an international level. We spoke with him about this event and his view of the hydraulics industry.

Why did you choose female alumnae as the guests of honor for the commemoration?

It’s a message we wanted to send. In my experience, it’s very important for a research lab to include scientists from all over the world and have a good balance of men and women - especially if we want to bring in new ideas, create positive energy and instill respect among colleagues. Around a third of the 50-odd thesis projects that I have supervised were by women, which is a pretty good percentage in this field. The women who will speak on March 8 are active around the world and will share their experience with us.

How has your discipline evolved over the years?

Hydraulic energy expanded rapidly in Switzerland and internationally between 1928 and the 1970s. For instance, a number of dams and large hydroelectric plants were built in the Alps. Academic research at the time supported these large-scale projects by providing expert reports that aimed to tackle specific problems, such as by conducting experiments on scale models. Research - that is, with no direct link to a major infrastructure project - didn’t reach EPFL until 1972 when Professor Walter H. Graf joined the school. That research studied things like sediment transport in rivers, sand build-up in dam reservoirs and lake hydrodynamics.

What changed in the 1980s?

Before, engineers used concrete to completely dam up rivers and canalize them. But when the Reuss river flooded in the Canton of Uri in 1987 - causing over CHF 1 billion in damage because the whole dike failed - we realized that a river will always return to its original course during a flood. That natural disaster triggered a paradigm shift because it showed us we need to pay more attention to rivers’ natural behavior. So engineers started thinking about how to improve existing dams and build better ones in the future, in order to better protect the environment.

And how did this affect research at EPFL?

When I got to the school in 1997, it wasn’t very well-known in Switzerland for providing expertise on river engineering projects carried out under this new paradigm. Contractors turned mostly to ETH Zurich, even in French-speaking Switzerland. So I helped bring this culture to EPFL and increase the number of publications by our researchers. That bolstered our reputation in the scientific community, not just in Switzerland but around the world. We also developed pioneering theories on subjects like the scouring of rocks by high-velocity jets downstream of dams, models to simulate and predict lake floods in the Alps, and walls to protect areas against floods. Our PhD alumni still use these theories, and many of them have set up their own engineering firms. Of course, the research we conduct at our lab changes in line with industry needs. For example, we developed floating retention dams to use in the case of an oil spill; for that we worked on the artificial beaches set up for the Swiss national exposition in 2002. We also studied the safety of reinforced shafts in high-head hydroelectric plants - that research was prompted by the shaft failure and tragic accident at Cleuson-Dixence, just above Nendaz, in 2000. We were also a pioneer in protecting fish in canalized rivers by creating refuges.

How has climate change influenced hydraulics research in the past few years?

It has given rise to a host of new research topics. River floods have become more frequent and it is now more important than ever to protect rivers’ natural courses. More recently, the melting of glaciers has become a particularly worrying development in Switzerland. As glaciers melt, they form lakes that carry down increasing amounts of moraine - which can accumulate upstream of dams. If a large chunk of a glacier melted into one of these lakes, that could potentially be very dangerous. So we need to continue studying such scenarios.

How have your researchers addressed these issues?

We formed cross-disciplinary research teams, which was crucial for identifying all aspects of a given project and thus avoid the objections that could cause delays. We introduced a new methodology called Synergie that aims to develop "multi-purpose engineering solutions." By that we mean solutions that strike the right balance between generating the power that people need and preserving the natural environment. For example, at Riddes in the Canton of Valais, we suggested creating an artificial lake on the Rhone and building a hydroelectric plant. That would not only generate power, but also help protect against floods and eliminate drawdown in the river. What’s more, a lake would provide a thriving habitat for wildlife, a rest area for migrating birds and even a place to go kitesurfing since the region is very windy.

Dams are still controversial, even within the scientific community. What would you say to detractors?

One of the biggest challenges of the 21st century will be to make renewable energy - and, of course, water - available to everyone under the best possible conditions. Out of the around 60,000 large [over 15-meter-high] dams around the world, only a handful are really debatable. Hydropower still has enormous potential worldwide and could replace many of today’s coal-fired plants. But that’s only if we keep to the notion of "synergy" and don’t try to build the biggest and highest dams at any cost. I often say that we need to build better dams for a better world. And that’s a challenge for engineers and companies alike.

"Hydraulic Laboratory in Civil Engineering, 1928-2018, 90 years of impact thinking," 8 March 2018, 3pm-5pm, SwissTech Convention Center. Registration at: secretariat.lch [at] epfl (p) ch.