A Conversation With Muhannad Suleiman

On soils, structures, student researchers, and service


Research Spotlight

The Suleiman lab is a busy place these days.

Yes, there are several projects going on. One is research into the use of geothermal foundations. Typically, geothermal systems are built separately from a structure. We’re investigating a system that is part of the foundations supporting a structure, which would cost much less to install. There’s more research underway in Europe than the U.S. on this right now.

Recently, the Qatar National Research Program funded a research proposal on geothermal foundations that I am leading. Researchers at Lehigh and at Qatar University are collaborating on this project.

Another project, an NSF-funded study, employs pervious concrete as a foundation system. The pervious concrete allows water to flow through it, which, in turn, helps consolidate and strengthen soil, particularly if it’s saturated or very soft. The concrete can also provide a path for water to move out of soil during an earthquake, which may help avoid or minimize the occurrence of a liquifaction condition. Liquifaction is the quicksand that forms under seismic conditions.

A third study, which is also funded by the NSF, uses bacteria to modify the properties of soil to create a more sustainable ground improvement system. Most have two main disadvantages: they use a lot of cement and fossil fuel energy and they pump potentially toxic materials into the soil. The bio-modification method relies on the indigenous soil bacteria that helps strengthen and stiffen the soil. In addition, it can be combined with the pervious concrete foundation to optimize the soil improvement.

This research requires large-scale experimentation. How do you create the conditions you need to conduct these studies?

After joining Lehigh I established a soil-structure interaction facility at the ATLSS (Advanced Technology for Large Scale Structural Systems) Research Center. It consists of two large soil boxes, a self-reacting system for applying loads, saturating and draining capabilities, and an array of advanced sensors. These advantages allow us to perform the large-scale tests at Lehigh, which is not possible at many other institutions.

How do your students figure into your research efforts? 

Suleiman and StudentsI currently have three Ph.D. students, and I always try to keep one or two undergraduate students in my research group as well. It gives the undergraduates research experience, and my hope is that if they like what they do, they will eventually join the group as graduate students.

Our work has real societal impact. For example, in the U.S., we spend roughly $6-11 billion a year on bridge deterioration because of the salts we use to de-ice them. So one of my Ph.D. students did an analytical study on a bridge de-icing system. Using the weather in Philadelphia as our benchmark, we analyzed the coldest and snowiest years, respectively, of the last three decades. And we found that our geothermal de-icing system could eliminate the need for salt between 60 and 80 percent of the time.

That’s the kind of research that makes a difference by providing a solution to a practical problem, and in the lives of the students who help solve it.

You’re making a difference outside of Lehigh these days as well.

I hope to. I have recently served as a co-editor of the proceedings of the International Foundation Conference and Equipment Expo, a 2015 Geo-Institute conference. Also, I was recently selected to serve as one of three academic representatives to a new joint venture between the Pile Driving Contractors Association and the United States Universities Council on Geotechnical Education and Research. This November, I have been invited for the second time to present at the 28th Central PA Geotechnical Conference. I’m also serving as a president-elect of the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. We have a terrific student chapter at the University, too.

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