An Engineer’s Focus on Fixing the
USA’s Infrastructure Gains Momentum
10/28/2013 - Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and
The USA pipeline infrastructure
systems was created in an era of inexpensive fossil fuel, stable
climate, growing water demand, and rapidly expanding gross domestic
Sunil Sinha, associate professor of civil and
environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.
“Unfortunately, the pipeline infrastructure is aging and already
operating outside its design limits. How a nation operates,
retrofits, and expands its pipeline infrastructure will help
determine the quality of life for future generations and that
nation’s competitiveness in the global economy,” he added.
Sinha predicted that if the U.S. is to meet important challenges of
the 21st century, a new paradigm for the building and retrofitting
of critical pipeline infrastructure system is required, one that
addresses the conflicting goals of diverse economic, environment,
societal, and policy interests.
years ago, America’s energy infrastructure system earned a “D+” and
the water infrastructure system earned a “D” on its report card,
issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Unfortunately, not much has
changed. The professional society gave energy and water
infrastructure a D+ for 2013.
“Pipelines provide the lifeblood to society by transporting energy,
water, waste, and other critical services.
Sinha, a 2007 recipient of a National Science Foundation CAREER
award for research in the area of sustainable water infrastructure
management systems, is leading efforts to prioritize work that could
change the energy and water pipeline industry to make it sustainable
“More than five million miles of pipeline exist in the U.S. alone,
and worldwide, countries annually install approximately 500,000
miles of pipeline with a market value of more than $50 billion,”
“Pipelines crisscross our
communities near our homes and schools, yet little attention is paid
to this critical infrastructure until catastrophic failures occur.”
As examples of high-profile accidents, he pointed to several
incidents, including a leak of thousands of barrels of crude oil
into a North Dakota field from a pipeline in September 2013, Exxon
Mobil's Mayflower pipeline ruptured in a suburban neighborhood in
Arkansas, forcing residents from homes in March 2013, and Enbridge,
Inc., shut its 345,000 barrels per day Athabasca pipeline after
1,400 barrels of oil spilled in Northeast Alberta in June 2012.
Also, water main breaks in Washington’s Maryland suburbs in January
of 2011 and in December of 2012 washed out roads and required
emergency helicopter rescues.
In 2010 a pipeline explosion in
San Bruno, Calif., caused the death of eight people. Since 2007,
highly publicized leaks of buried pipe containing radioactive
materials have occurred at two nuclear facilities.
The impacts and damages from
failing pipeline infrastructure systems is growing.
Since Sinha’s arrival at Virginia Tech in 2007, he has methodically
taken a number of steps in researching how to sustain both energy
and water pipeline infrastructure.
In 2008, Sinha and Marc Edwards, who holds CEE’s Charles P. Lunsford
Professorship and is the recipient of an NSF Presidential Faculty
Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellow award, teamed to establish the
Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS)
and the Center of Excellence (ICE) in
Water Infrastructure Management (SWIM) .
Edwards was also dubbed the
“Plumbing Professor” by Time magazine for his internationally
recognized expertise on drinking water.
Through the institute, Sinha has since worked to develop an
integrated water and wastewater pipe management system that uses
sensor technologies and non-destructive testing tools.
This research has the potential
to change the utilities’ ability to rate the condition and
performance of its pipeline infrastructure system and to develop a
rational repair, rehabilitation, and replacement program.
In 2010 Sinha led the development of a National Pipeline
This database is “like a
Wikipedia for the drinking water and wastewater utilities except
users do not have editing privileges,” Sinha said.
Instead, this database will be maintained
and updated by the institute. It is providing case studies,
synthesis reports, lists of vendors, consultants, and contractors on
a regional basis who deal in a particular technology, and comments
from end users about individual experiences with a particular
and subtitled the WATER Infrastructure Database, “The database
ensures a single point, information center for the utilities where
they can find all the relevant information that will help in
expediting the decision making process for selecting appropriate
condition assessment and renewal engineering technologies,” Sinha
His work to develop this database was supported by the Water
Environmental Research Foundation. It awarded him two grants, valued
at about a million dollars through the Environmental Protection
Agency’s Aging Water Infrastructure Research Program.
Sinha also helped spearhead the PBS documentary “Liquid
Assets: The Story of Our Water Infrastructure,” which aired on
PBS affiliates across the country at the beginning of this decade.
This documentary throws light on a long-buried problem - America’s
aging infrastructure system.
Most recently, Sinha organized a workshop, “Smart Pipeline
Infrastructure Network for Energy and Water (SPINE),” which focused
on transforming the energy and water pipeline industry to make it
sustainable and resilient.
Attendees included industry leaders from the
water, chemical, nuclear, hazardous materials, oil, and gas fields.
Government officials from the
Department of Homeland Security, Congressional Research Services,
Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute of Standards
and Technology, the Department of Energy, the Department of
Transportation, and Electric Power Research Institute also
At this meeting, the attendees reached a consensus on a prioritized
list of how to transform the pipeline industry, “creating an
intelligent, responsive continent-wide pipeline infrastructure
system that is fully monitored and dynamically controlled to allow
for higher reliability, cost-effectiveness, efficiency,
sustainability, security, and resiliency,” Sinha said.
Under Sinha’s leadership, Virginia Tech has partnered with Carnegie
Mellon, Georgia Tech, Louisiana Tech, the University of Puerto Rico
– Mayaguez, and several international universities to pursue a
National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center (NSF ERC) on
the Smart Pipeline Infrastructure Network for Energy and Water
“We hope to serve as a national and international resource for the
energy and water pipeline industries, relevant federal, state, and
local agencies, and the public.
Our hub would be dedicated to
integrating and coordinating high-impact, interdisciplinary
research, and would educate the next generation of science and
engineering leaders in sustainable technologies,” Sinha added.