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$2.5M to launch a new era in ‘natural hazards engineering’

A $2.5 million project funded by the NSF will create a computational framework to define a set of standards for disaster researchers.| Medium Read
EnlargeA town destroyed by a natural disaster
IMAGE:  Natural hazards engineers study earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, landslides, and other disasters. They work to better understand the causes and effects of these phenomena on cities, homes, and infrastructure and develop strategies to save lives and mitigate damage. Photo: Getty Images

Advancing ‘natural hazards engineering’ and disaster science is the goal of a new $2.5 million project at the University of Michigan. It’s funded by the National Science Foundation.

Natural hazards engineers study earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, landslides, and other disasters. They work to better understand the causes and effects of these phenomena on cities, homes, and infrastructure and develop strategies to save lives and mitigate damage.

The researchers of this newly funded project are creating a computational framework that will define a set of standards for disaster researchers to use when constructing their models, enabling simulation models to work together.

“Disasters affect so many people worldwide, there is a lot we can do to reduce loss of life and damage to our civil infrastructure,” said Sherif El-Tawil, professor of civil and environmental engineering and principal investigator on the project.

“Lots of researchers study disasters, including engineers like me, but also social scientists, economists, doctors, and others. But all of the studies are essentially niche studies, belonging in the field of the researchers. Our objective is to develop computational standards so that social scientists, engineers, economists, doctors, first responders, and everyone else can produce simulators that interact together in a large, all-encompassing simulation of a disaster scenario. Think of it as the civilian equivalent of a war games simulator.”

Disasters affect so many people worldwide, there is a lot we can do to reduce loss of life and damage to our civil infrastructure.Professor Sherif El-Tawil

El-Tawil is a structural engineer interested in how buildings behave, particularly in disasters. He’s developed 3D models and simulators that show precisely what happens in a building if a particular column or wall is destroyed during an extreme event.

Developing a common computational language will allow completely new studies to occur, the researchers say. One person might look at the effects of an earthquake on a particular town and its citizens and then the subsequent effects of infectious diseases, for example.

EnlargeA graphic explaining the computational framework
IMAGE:  A $2.5 million project at the University of Michigan funded by the National Science Foundation will create a computational framework that will define a set of standards for disaster researchers to use when constructing their models, enabling simulation models to work together. Image: Sherif El-Tawil

“With a common language, we can really examine the cascading and potentially out-of-control effects that occur during catastrophic events,” El-Tawil said.

Beyond developing the computational standards, the researchers hope to create something like an app store through which researchers can share their simulation models and foster new collaborations and new areas of research.

The project brings together expertise in engineering, social science, and computer science. Six of the seven core members are from U-M and the seventh is from the University of Delaware.

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In addition to El-Tawil, the team includes: Jason McCormick, an earthquake engineering expert who is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering (CEE) at U-M; Seymour Spence, a wind engineering expert who is an assistant professor in CEE at U-M; and Benigno Aguirre, a social scientist at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center who studies how people behave during catastrophes. Developing the simulation techniques used in the project will be CEE Professor Vineet Kamat, CEE Associate Professor Carol Menassa, and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Atul Prakash.

A town destroyed by a natural disaster
A graphic explaining the computational framework
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  • Sherif El-Tawil

    Sherif El-Tawil

    Professor and Associate Chair, Civil & Environmental Engineering

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