The research objective of this Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) project is to gain a fundamental understanding of the mechanisms that deteriorate the mechanical properties of geomaterials subjected to environmental forcing, as well as of the deformation/failure events potentially triggered by such alterations. In particular, the project aims to formulate novel theoretical approaches to quantify the risk of failure induced by multi-physical agents, link theories with predictive models and use these tools for interpretation and design purposes. To achieve these goals, the project will combine a range of methods to enhance the physical foundations of geomechanical modeling frameworks, thus improving their ability to predict homogeneous and localized deformations initiated by multi-physical processes. More specifically, the project will involve energy methods for detecting the onset of instabilities during non-mechanical forcing, innovative bifurcation analyses for assessing the performance of constitutive formulations, computational analyses to identify possible sources of heterogeneity induced by transient phenomena and a novel strategy to couple the evolution of the mechanical properties with the hydrologic, thermal and chemical processes modifying the microstructural characteristics of a geological solid. The research activities will be integrated with a dedicated educational plan, with the purpose to coordinate education, training and outreach efforts. The planned initiatives will involve a wide range of users, ranging from graduate and undergraduate students to practitioners, local high schools and the general public. Such a wide audience will be engaged through a number of activities, including the development of e-learning tools, the involvement of undergraduate students in research and internationalization activities, the organization of workshops for local high-school teachers and the global dissemination of the research findings.
Given the pervasive distribution of multi-physical processes in the natural environment, the research findings resulting from this project can benefit the society by supporting the quantitative assessment of environmental risks, as well as the safe and sustainable implementation of numerous technological activities. In particular, the tools and methods formulated by this project will assist engineers and geoscientists in the interpretation, monitoring and prediction of critical events in geotechnical and geophysical contexts. Prominent examples are the forecasting of natural hazards, the management of aging infrastructures, the optimization of energy technologies and the underground storage of hazardous substances (e.g., nuclear waste or carbon dioxide). As a result, the findings of the project can have an impact on a number of neighboring disciplines, such as reservoir engineering, environmental engineering, geophysics, engineering geology and geomorphology. In addition, the future incorporation of the above mentioned advances in the technological practice can yield long-term benefits for a number of challenging societal problems, such as the pressing need for durable infrastructures, the reduction of casualties and property loss in urbanized areas, the safe supply of natural resources and the safeguard of public investments in the area of environmental sustainability.