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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/R041903/1
Title: Biopolymer treatment for stabilisation of transport infrastructure slopes
Principal Investigator: Hughes, Dr PN
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Highways England Royal Haskoning
Department: Engineering
Organisation: Durham, University of
Scheme: Standard Research - NR1
Starts: 30 April 2018 Ends: 29 April 2020 Value (£): 218,232
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Civil Engineering Materials Ground Engineering
Transport Ops & Management
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Environment Transport Systems and Vehicles
Technical Consultancy
Related Grants:
Panel History:  
Summary on Grant Application Form
Slope failures (landslides) cause significant disruption to our transport network. In 2015 143 failures like these were recorded on the rail network alone. In addition to causing frustrating delays these failures also cost a significant amount to repair. Failures usually occur during winter months as a result of high rainfall but this is just the end point of a process which may have been occurring for several years. Long exposure to the UK's changing weather causes the compacted clay soil which forms the embankments that our highways and railways are built upon to weaken over time. Very fine cracks develop as the soil is repeatedly dried out and then re-wetted by periods of dry and then wet weather. This effects the way water moves through the soil, the cracks allow water to get deep into the slope very quickly and large pressures can build up, pushing soil particles apart. Ordinarily, during hot dry weather the opposite happens. Water is taken out of the soil by the action of evaporation and transpiration of plants, this induces negative pressures which force soil particles together, strengthening the slope. These negative pressures build up during the summer and help keep the slopes stable during the winter. The capability of soils to generate these negative pressures is reduced by the formation of cracks. A combination of these factors can weaken the soil to such a point where one large rainfall event can cause a slope to de-stabilise.

This project will develop a new way of strengthening soil slopes and preventing these types of failure from occurring. Biopolymers, naturally occurring polymers formed by the action of microorganisms, can be added to soil to improve its strength and reduce the potential for cracking. The biopolymers mix with water in the soil to form gels which bind with soil particles giving the soil greater strength and reducing permeability. Biopolymers are already utilised in cosmetics and food as thickening agents so they are relatively cheap. They also do not require significant amounts of energy to produce and therefore they are not associated with high carbon dioxide emissions like other potential soil binders (e.g. cement and lime). Whilst the potential of biopolymers has previously been identified they have not been applied to slope stability problems and the way they form bonds and fill soil pores has not been studied fully. This project will carry out a detailed investigation of how biopolymers interact with compacted soils and use the information gathered to develop a new binder suitable for use in the repair and maintenance of highway and railway embankments.

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