Dr Asal Bidarmaghz: What Lies Beneath

Dr Asal BidarmaghzArriving in Sydney from her position as a Research Associate with the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction at Cambridge University, Dr Asal Bidarmaghz has found her CVEN welcome enthusiastic, warm and practically helpful: “like they were waiting for me”. As a Lecturer in Geotechnical Engineering, Asal brings to us her extensive knowledge and experience in the nascent field of subterranean geo-energy systems, having received her PhD in Civil Engineering (Geothermal Technologies) from the University of Melbourne in 2015.

CVEN recognises her worth as an addition to our School, where she will not only develop cutting edge research projects, but also help our students become innovators in this newest of fields, carrying the message to industry, shaping a new world view, as she asks us all to look down and see what lies beneath our feet.

“There is a problem, a big problem,” she says. World leaders are not fully acknowledging nor acting upon the true impacts of climate change. Moreover, underground climate change is very rarely considered or discussed. Nor is geo-energy utilised as a resource, even though it is ever present, available and the technology to access it has been developed. But Asal Bidarmaghz is a gently hopeful engineer, who believes in the power of hard work and persistence, bolstered by collegiate support and right-minded institutions.

“With support and trust we can do anything. The challenge with industry is to create business cases for geo-energy system projects. I want to be able to present a solution to the problems of energy over-consumption, to combat the under-estimation of the climate change problem by governments and to encourage those school kids who protest about the destruction of their future. I feel confident, this is do-able. We cannot go backwards.”

Asal’s research, begun during her PhD in Melbourne and continued at Cambridge, reveals the particular climate change challenges created by ever increasing urbanisation. Cities create ‘urban heat islands’, where temperatures far exceed those of the surrounding rural areas. This promotes the need for electric cooling, the need for resources. We need to be asking what effect do our underground structures, such as basements, car parks and activities like transport tunnelling, have on the surrounding environment? Could the heat generated by such activities be extracted and exploited as ‘smart heat’? “In city-scale, there are gigawatts of ground energy freely available to us, but there is a lack of understanding as we continue to burn coal. We need the different sectors working together in urban planning.”

These were the questions that Asal and her team at the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) have been asking, questions she will continue to explore here in Sydney. Maintaining her connections with Cambridge University will allow Asal’s work to remain internationally relevant and in 2019 substantial research findings on available green energy and sustainable ground utilisation will be published, expanding an already impressive list of co-authored articles and presentations. As part of an internationally collaborative team (UK/USA/Australia) Asal and her colleagues have their fingers crossed for the success of a significant grant application on underground climate change modelling and monitoring.

In city-scale, there are gigawatts of ground energy freely available to us, but there is a lack of understanding as we continue to burn coal. We need the different sectors working together in urban planning

Dr Asal Bidarmaghz

The benefits of geospatial research to city planners, asset owners, local authorities and citizens are many and seemingly obvious: alternative, sustainable and free energy sources, optimal use of subterranean spaces in city planning and positive impacts on general wellbeing of urban inhabitants. Frustratingly, Australian industries and governments are not yet fully convinced; perhaps revealing “a resistance to anything new and expensive”, so this continued research is vital to enacting change in our cities.

Dr. Bidarmaghz’s research has also made her adept at multiple kinds of modelling: analytical numerical and experimental monitoring, and she will be introducing CVEN students to methodologies that create integrated appraisals of varied geo-energy systems. But this is not all she brings to our students in educational methodology. Asal has spent a great deal of time researching and refining student learning cycles, especially concerning engineering laboratory work. After an extensive literature review, she discovered that what was vital to successful learning was a complete learning cycle – affirming Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory. All of these stages are assessed, so students are only able to perform practical lab work if they are suitably prepared. This maximises teaching resources and practical, hands-on learning experiences. Students also become accomplished in reflective and predictive learning. This refined epistemological model was adopted at Melbourne University and is being used with great success and student satisfaction.

In 2019 Asal will be convening CVEN4202 Advanced Topics in Geotechnical Engineering and CVEN 4204 Ground Improvement and Monitoring Techniques. The former will utilise her expertise in learning and teaching, and ground energy modelling, at an honours and masters level. Underground geo-energy engineering is taught in only a very few European universities. Now CVEN will be added to this elite list in a field where academic research is flourishing. Asal is excited about her work and its potential to effect change. She is also very excited to dive in to the academic life here at CVEN and has already commenced supervising post-graduate students. 

While working in England, Asal cared for two small children while her civil engineer husband worked in construction on the other side of the world. The family will be re-united here in Sydney, only adding to the positive story that is her appointment here at CVEN.

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