World-first slope simulator will lead to safer infrastructure

Loughborough University is to create the world’s first large-scale National Engineered Slope Simulator, thanks to a £500,000 grant from the Wolfson Foundation.

The human and economic cost of earthwork failures, such as the collapse of slopes and dams, is significant. Landslides caused by earthquakes and heavy rainfall kill tens of thousands of people worldwide annually. They also damage infrastructure and cause severe disruption to access of critical lifelines such as water supply and transport links.

An ageing infrastructure, intensive use, and environmental extremes caused by climate change all threaten to increase the scale and frequency of such disasters.

But despite the devasting consequences of earthwork failures our understanding of why and when they occur is limited, and there is currently no capability anywhere in the world to undertake simulations that would provide this information.

The University’s simulator will revolutionise national and international research capacity in this field. Large-scale slopes will be constructed on a tilting table and subjected to cycles of controlled wetting and drying to simulate seasonal weather conditions. The table will be tilted and held at specified angles during this process, creating slope deterioration. Continuous monitoring, followed by rotating the slope to failure, will provide unique information on the impact of different weather patterns and extremes.

The tilting table will also provide an opportunity to investigate the performance of slope remediation interventions to an extent that has not been possible before, which will allow optimisation of slope repair and design. 

Ultimately the simulator will enable engineers to design, deliver and maintain affordable and safe infrastructure that is resilient to the increasing environmental risks caused by climate change.

Professor Neil Dixon and Dr Alister Smith from Loughborough’s School of Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering will be leading the simulator project and the associated research programme, supported by a team of colleagues.

Speaking about the simulator Professor Dixon said: “This exceptional facility will transform research capability in the geotechnical engineering sector. It will enable us to work with our academic and stakeholder partners across the UK to investigate and understand the causes of earthwork slope failures, optimise remediation strategies and inform the design of new infrastructure.

“I am incredibly grateful for the Wolfson Foundation’s generous support with this project, which will have life-saving benefits.”

Rachel Third, Director of Philanthropy, said: “I am very grateful for the Wolfson Foundation’s continuing and generous support of Loughborough University and the strong relationship that we have built over many years. The Wolfson Foundation has made a significant difference to the research and teaching activities undertaken across the campus and we look forward to keeping them updated on the impact of this grant. I would like to thank the Foundation on behalf of everyone involved.”

Paul Ramsbottom, Chief Executive of the Wolfson Foundation (an independent grant-making charity), said: “We are delighted to continue our long partnership with Loughborough University. This is one of the most intriguing and important grants awarded this funding round. It is based around brilliant science, and will be one of the only facilities of its kind – not just in the UK but beyond.”

Professor Dixon and Dr Smith are internationally acclaimed for their work in this area. They are the creators of the world’s first commercial acoustic emission slope monitoring system, developed with a global leading geotechnical instrumentation company, and have conducted extensive research into slope failures.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: PR 21/146

About Loughborough University

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2021 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2019.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in the Guardian University League Table 2021, 5th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2020 and 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.

About the Wolfson Foundation

The Wolfson Foundation is an independent charity with a focus on research and education. Its aim is to support civil society by investing in excellent projects in science, health, heritage, humanities and the arts. Since it was established in 1955, some £1 billion (£2 billion in real terms) has been awarded to more than 14,000 projects throughout the UK, all on the basis of expert review.

Twitter: @wolfsonfdn