Congratulations to Professor Adrian Russell

Professor Adrian RussellCongratulations to the School’s Professor Adrian Russell, who has been awarded a 2020 ARC Future Fellowship to a value of $1,040,000 for his crucial research on preventing mining disasters by improving the safety of tailings storage facilities (TSFs).

As acting Head of School Nasser Khalili noted, “This is an outstanding achievement, and testament to Adrian’s relentless pursuit of excellence, commitment to quality, and his national and international standing as a leader in the field.”

Professor Russell is an expert in unsaturated soil mechanics and a world leader in the use of in-situ tests to characterise the properties of unsaturated geomaterials. He has worked on the issue of tailings liquefication for some time, most recently on an ARC Linkage project involving several universities and mining companies.

Tailings are the waste products of mining, a mixture of water and soil-sized particles. They are often stored on mining sites and contained by embankment perimeter walls. These tailings dams can be four kilometres in diameter, or several hundred metres high. In fact, the biggest tailings dams are the largest humanmade structures on the planet.

But these dams carry a high risk due to the notorious potential of tailings to liquefy, when they suddenly transform from a solid to a fluid-like material, sometimes involving failure of the embankment walls enabling the tailings to be released and flow.

In 2019 the Brumadinho tailings dam, at an iron ore mine in Brazil, suffered a catastrophic failure, releasing 12 million cubic metres of toxic tailings. The mudflow obliterated the mine’s offices and cafeteria and all the farms and houses in its path. It killed over 250 people and, according to Brazil’s National Water Agency, could end up polluting over 300 kilometres of river.

“On average” says Professor Russell, “there are two large failures a year around the world, many of which kill dozens of people and severely damage the environment by covering wide areas in tailings which are sometimes toxic.”

“Despite fairly advanced knowledge of soil mechanics and advanced engineering techniques being applied to their design and construction, no one fully understands tailings properties and their potential to liquefy.”

“My Future Fellowship will address how tailings dams liquefy, focussing mostly on liquefaction due to earthquake loading. It applies to tailings dams that are still being filled and enlarged to accommodate more and more tailings, plus how they are likely to perform over the next 10,000 years as they lie in situ once the mine has closed. 

I will consider the extreme earthquakes they are likely to experience, the extreme wetting and drying events they are likely to experience, as well as how their properties will change with age, and how engineers can use existing tools like the cone penetration test to determine their susceptibility to liquefaction.

The anticipated outcomes from Russell’s work will be updated industry guidelines for improved design and management of TSFs, thus reducing environmental disasters and saving lives.

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