Engineering the Infrastructure of the Future
You don’t have to look far to see that our nation’s infrastructure systems are in need of rejuvenation. The roads, bridges, waterways, and energy systems that surround us are fast approaching the end of their lifecycle. After years of neglect, CEE Assistant Professor Costa Samaras says the time has come for us to not only reinvest in these networks, but bring them up to speed so they will be prepared to withstand a future of uncertain weather conditions.
“We’re entering a new world where climate conditions in the future will look very different,” says Samaras. “Here at CMU, we’re developing the research and the education initiatives necessary to advance engineering methods to figure out ways to make our infrastructure future-proof.”
Samaras’ research focuses on a major confluence in our nation’s network of infrastructure: the nexus of energy and transportation. By evaluating the current state of these systems, he and his research group can determine which investments would best prepare them to withstand the effects of climate change, while simultaneously minimizing emissions in both sectors.
“We think about focused areas where we could make a difference right now,” says Samaras. “So we’re looking at how individual power plants are vulnerable to climate change impacts, as well as how strategic roadway and other transportation networks are vulnerable—and more specifically, what can we do about it?”
According to Samaras, smart investments would consider how much it would cost not only to build new systems, but how much it will cost to operate them over the long term. He says that by making strategic investments upfront, we can help ensure that our infrastructure is efficient and resilient to climate change, which will minimize cost and maximize performance in the long run.
“It’s kind of like putting energy efficient appliances in your house,” explains Samaras. “They might cost a little bit more, but over the life of those appliances, it’s going to save you more than enough money to make up for that initial investment.”
To that end, Samaras has been analyzing the how to incorporate climate change adaptation into engineering designs. He’s also investigating how renewable fuels and autonomous vehicles might change energy use and emissions, while providing benefits to the customer.
After earning a joint PhD in CEE and Engineering and Public Policy (EPP) from CMU, in 2008 Samaras joined Rand corporation. From his work there, and after his return to CMU in 2013, he has published numerous studies examining plug-in and autonomous vehicles, renewable electricity, and low-carbon fuels. Recently, he was part of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)’s Committee on Adaptation to a Changing Climate, which produced an e-book, Adapting Infrastructure and Civil Engineering Practice to a Changing Climate.
Samaras says it’s CMU’s culture of interdisciplinary collaboration that made him choose to join the faculty in the first place—after all, this is the birthplace of the autonomous car, and the collaborative fabric of the university enables joint efforts that unite CEE with the Robotics Institute, the School of Computer Science, Heinz College, and private companies.
“We are able to bring together researchers across departments and schools who are used to working together to find new creative solutions,” he says. “Nobody’s afraid to work with anybody, and students and faculty are encouraged and rewarded for breaking new ground across disciplines.“
Moving forward, Samaras is confident that CMU will continue to lead the way in ensuring the future success of our nation’s infrastructure systems. Last fall, he helped design and teach an innovative new course, Climate Change Adaptation for Infrastructure, making CEE the first engineering program in the country to offer a course focused on this crucial topic.
“What we’re trying to do here at Carnegie Mellon is conduct research on the frontiers of engineering and train the next generation of professionals that will develop solutions to address climate change impacts,” says Samaras. “It’s very important that we focus our attention on the nexus of energy and transportation, because it’s an area where there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”