A Research Collaboration That Spans the Globe

QNRF research team
The research team (from left to right): Suguang (Sean) Xiao, Ph.D. candidate in geotechnical engineering; Dr. Mohammed Al-Khawaja, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Qatar University; Dr. Sudhakar Neti, professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics at Lehigh University; and Dr. Muhannad Suleiman, associate professor of geotechnical engineering at Lehigh University.

Halfway around the world, Qatar's scientific community, as well as benefactors to the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), gathered together at a banquet hall to announce and congratulate the recipients of research funding from the National Priority Research Program, which is the highly competitive flagship funding program of the QNRF.

Meanwhile, Muhannad T. Suleiman, associate professor of geotechnical engineering, was about to find out if his three-year, approximately $850,000 research proposal was among those selected. He was huddled around his computer at 4 a.m., hoping to see his name appear on a video feed provided by the QNRF.

His proposed project would look at the long-term behavior of geothermal deep foundation systems in cooling-dominated environments a natural area of interest for a state like Qatar, which heavily relies on fossil fuel for air conditioning. And with expected significant construction in Qatar in preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and to promote the use of sustainable energy sources, Suleiman felt that he would see his name on the list of approved projects, but at first, he wasn't seeing any names.

"The feed cut out right as they started announcing," Suleiman says. "That was somewhat frustrating because I was very anxious, but thankfully, when it came back on, I received the news I was hoping for."

The amount of energy consumed by heating and cooling systems is staggering: approximately 30% worldwide and 65% in Qatar. In Qatar, a cooling-dominated environment, fossil fuels are usually used to produce that energy. Geothermal deep foundations (or energy piles) are an innovative way to both support structural loads and, through the use of heat exchange loops and a heat pump connected to a building's HVAC system, provide the building with a comfortable temperature.

It's an efficient way to heat and cool a home, office building, or event space, but little is known about the long-term effects of the heat transfer between the foundation and surrounding soil. Suleiman says the temperature of soil along an energy pile can range between 1 and 33 degrees Celsius in balanced environments where almost equal heating and cooling are needed annually. In cooling-dominated environments, however, the effects of long-term cooling are not known including both the change of soil temperatures and properties and the soil-foundation interaction.

That's where Suleiman and his team come in.

As Suleiman explains, this project was kick-started by a grant from Lehigh's Office of International Affairs. He was one of the professors to receive a Faculty Grant for International Connections, and he used that money to go to Qatar and find out if his vision for this research project lined up with that of Dr. Mohammed Al-Khawaja, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Qatar University.

Al-Khawaja spent a week at Lehigh this summer for meetings, updates, and planning for near future activities the second time they met in person. "International collaboration usually faces the challenge of different research cultures and coordination of research activities and times," Suleiman says, currently with seven hours' time difference from his research counterpart. "The team is trying to overcome these challenges by visiting each other's institutions. We also hold regular video meetings through Skype."

Al-Khawaja's visit was a productive one, Suleiman says. They visited the research labs where much of experimental research conducted at Lehigh will take place including the Soil-Structure Interaction Facility at Lehigh's Center for Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems, or ATLSS.

They also met with Sudakhar Neti, professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics at Lehigh. "This project focuses on long-term performance of geothermal foundation systems," Suleiman says, "which use the principles of heat transfer between the foundation and its surrounding soil. That's where Dr. Neti's and Dr. Al-Khawaja's expertise is needed."

Suleiman just returned from a visit to Qatar where he met with the research team, toured their facilities, and discussed detailed plans of field testing in Qatar with industry partners and Qatar University officials. In addition, Suleiman met with civil engineering faculty to plan future research. He also presented about Lehigh, CEE, and his research.

By John Gilpatrick



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