Researcher works with US Army Corps of Engi

Image: Cherif Abdelaziz
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Credit: Peter Means for Virginia Tech

Building materials have remained relatively unchanged since the invention of cement in the early 19and century. This can have significant drawbacks for overseas military builds.

Building military infrastructure overseas requires loading cargo ships with large amounts of heavy cement, which reduces space for other essential supplies such as medical resources and protective equipment. Handling cement can also be potentially harmful to soldiers as inhaling cement powder is known to cause respiratory illnesses.

“We want to identify and validate a new human-friendly binding material to improve the technical performance of soils and better control the lifespan of this material in soil,” said Sherif Abdelaziz, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. at Virginia Tech.

Abdelaziz received funding from the US Army Corps of Engineers for two projects. A project is related to the use of biopolymers to improve soils in collaboration with the Army Corps’ Environmental Laboratory (EL). The other project focuses on the use of biopolymers to reinforce military earthen structures and soils.

Biopolymers are compounds naturally produced by living organisms in the soil. “They are very safe for human health and the environment,” Abdelaziz said. “We consume biopolymers in our daily lives in several food products.”

For the first project, Abdelaziz and his team will test the performance and resistance of biopolymer-amended soils in a lab so they can one day benefit from real-world construction. Researchers hope that modifying natural soils with engineered biopolymer composites can strengthen geostructures, or structures supported by rocks and soil, as well as design and construction procedures.

“This kind of structure needs to be built quickly with minimal health issues for our troops,” Abdelaziz said. “Biopolymers offer new ways to replace conventional cement-based treatments.”

Biopolymer-stabilized soils can be designed so that the treatment will self-degrade, reducing the US military’s negative environmental footprint around the world. Additionally, the use of these floors will minimize construction dust which can be harmful to soldiers.

“This represents a substantial break with the status quo,” Abdelaziz said. “The use of biopolymers to stabilize military and civilian earthen structures will facilitate the replacement of cementitious materials widely used today. Replacing these materials with biopolymers will have a positive impact on Earth’s environment and the health of all living species, including US Army soldiers.

Abdelaziz’s research team intends to apply their work to a second project with biopolymer-stabilized soils for building stronger dams and levees.

Currently, the construction of earth dams and dykes relies on natural geomaterials, such as soil and rocks. However, these materials have exhibited long-term performance issues due to deterioration and erosion. Failures of these dams and levees can result in fatalities and significant capital loss. Unfortunately, there are currently no alternative materials to build or rehabilitate these structures.

“There is an urgent need to develop and validate the performance of new innovative materials capable of increasing the resilience of these structures,” Abdelaziz said.

By evaluating the potential benefits of biopolymer materials, he hopes to better understand the basics of soil surface and internal erosion to know if the use of biopolymers can mitigate soil erosion and minimize failures that can lead to injuries and financial losses.

In the lab, Abdelaziz will use advanced numerical models to examine how various biopolymers interact with different soil types. From there, he can design procedures for biopolymer-treated soils that the Army Corps of Engineers can use to rehabilitate a sample set of earth dams, levees, and embankments. These structures will be monitored for several years, allowing the team to update the experimentally driven design procedures as needed.

“Our main goals are to develop ways to maximize the military’s performance in supporting infrastructure,” Abdelaziz said. “This, in turn, can help maximize US military performance.”


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