EPFL's long history of engineering geology

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© 2011 EPFL

© 2011 EPFL

It was an era of massive construction projects - dams, roads, and bridges – and many felt there was a need to better understand and control the behavior of the soil and rock underpinnings of all these infrastructures. Thus, in 1935, the Soil and Rock Mechanics Laboratories were created. Today, they’re celebrating their 75th birthday.

At that time, it wasn’t EPFL. It wasn’t even EPUL yet, the name EPFL carried before it became a federal institution. No, in 1935, when the Geotechnical Engineering (Géotechnique in French) department was created, the institution was still called the Lausanne School of Engineering (Ecole d’ingénieurs de Lausanne) and received its funding from the canton of Vaud. The Grand Council had decided to create the school following the inauguration of the Grand Dixence dam, often referred to as the “site of the century.”

This entity was the forefather of the current Soil Mechanics Laboratory (LMS) and Rock Mechanics Laboratory (LMR), making them two of EPFL’s oldest labs. To celebrate their 75th birthday, the LMS has organized a special day of seminars and discussions, to be held November 18.

The 1930s were the years of huge construction projects: dams, bridges, and major road works. “[The lab was created] in order to respond to the need to know more and better handle the underlying soil and bedrock of these massive structures,” explains Lyesse Laloui, who has been director of LMS since 2008. “And we were the pioneers in this, because our Zurich equivalent wasn’t created until 25 years later.”

The principal research axes thus involve analyzing the stability and behavior of soils. The research was, and still largely is, carried out in the context of consulting projects commissioned by private companies or by the state. “The lab has a public service role to play by providing the government with a unique expertise, one that no other institution can offer,” Laloui adds.

A never-ending challenge

In 1969, EPFL was federalized, taking the name it currently holds, Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne. Ten years later, the engineering geology laboratory split into two labs, becoming the Soil Mechanics and Rock Mechanics Laboratories. This restructuring reflected a need to better understand the behavior of bedrock in preparation for massive underground construction projects.

As the years passed, geotechnical engineering methods and measurements also evolved, and were used in a larger range of applications – roads, embankments, slopes, groundwater tables – and on a larger range of surfaces – expanding soils, partially saturated soils, compact and structured soil. Rheological (material flow and deformation) and thermal data were also more frequently taken into account. Areas of research became more diversified, focusing on pavement design, the influence and behavior of road infrastructures when exposed to freezing and thawing conditions, the stability of slopes and the prevention of landslides.

Today, LMS is confronting new issues. “While still maintaining the role of expert in our traditional research areas, we have, for the past ten years or so, also been increasingly confronted with energy-related problems.” Heat storage, burial of nuclear waste or CO2, gas extraction, geothermal energy – solutions for sustainable development and environmentally conscious use of the planet’s resources are now a fundamental part of both these laboratories’ research. And thanks to the level of expertise and the extensive international professional network built up over the labs’ long history, they have a rock-solid foundation from which to tackle these pressing problems.

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