Expert Report

Geological and Geotechnical Engineering in the New Millennium: Opportunities for Research and Technological Innovation (2006)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

This report presents a vision for the future of geotechnology aimed at National Science Foundation program managers, the geological and geotechnical engineering community as a whole, and other interested parties including Congress, federal and state agencies, industry, and other stakeholders in geoengineering research. Some of the ideas discussed may be close to reality whereas others may be elusive, but they all present possibilities to strive for and potential goals for the future. Examples of these ideas include microbes to stabilize or remediate soils; nanotechnology to modify the behavior of clay; and nanosensors and microelectromechanical systems to characterize and monitor the behavior of geomaterials and geosystems. According to the report, geoengineers are poised to expand their roles and lead in finding solutions for modern Earth systems problems, such as global change, emissions-free energy supply, global water supply, and urban systems.

Key Messages

  • In order to respond effectively to issues caused by human interactions with Earth systems, the committee sees a need for a broadened geoengineering discipline. Sustainable development provides a new paradigm for geoengineering practice, in which the tools, techniques, and scientific advances of multiple disciplines are brought to bear on ever more complex problems.
  • Multiple government agencies, such as the Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation, Department of Defense, and Department of Homeland Security, have interests in Earth system problems. These agencies would be well served by advances in geoengineering that could help to address the complex problems, knowledge gaps, and needs they face.
  • The committee finds that significant knowledge gaps continue to challenge the practice of geoengineering, especially the ability to characterize the subsurface; account for time effects; understand biogeochemical processes in soils and rocks; stabilize soils and rocks; use enhanced computing, information, and communication technologies; and understand geomaterials in extreme environments.
  • The committee sees tremendous opportunities for advancing geoengineering through interaction with other disciplines, especially in the areas of biotechnology, nanotechnology, MEMS and microsensors, geosensing, information technology, cyberinfrastructure, and multispatial and multitemporal geographical data modeling, analysis, and visualization.
  • The structure of universities can facilitate interdisciplinary research but is still lacking in its support of interdisciplinary engineering education.
  • There is a need for (1) improved characterization technology; (2) improved quantification of the uncertainties associated with characterization; and (3) improved methods for assessing the potential impacts of these uncertainties on engineering decisions requiring engineering judgment (i.e., on risk analysis for engineering decision making).
  • geoengineering problems.