From left: Manuel Franco Torres, Carlos Monrabal-Martinez and Fadi Suliman

Bright minds

Three of the engineers at Multiconsult’s department for water and wastewater engineering in Oslo have PhDs. The latest member of the club, Manuel Franco Torres, is challenging the traditional belief sets of engineers.

15. October, 2018

“Engineers have tended to take a modernist outlook, believing that we should predict and control nature, but we are beginning to understand that nature cannot be controlled like a machine. We must accept that there is lots of uncertainty and adapt to nature instead of working against it”, says Manuel Franco Torres.

This rather philosophical observation is the starting point for his PhD thesis on how to create a more efficient system for maintaining water and wastewater infrastructure.

“The cooperation between the various parties involved in designing, operating and maintaining this infrastructure is far from ideal, and it gets in the way of improvements. Through my research, I’m trying to define the various belief sets and their origins, set out what a new, shared paradigm should look like and explain how we can get there as quickly as possible”, adds Torres.

Treating stormwater

In February, Carlos Monrabal-Martinez defended his PhD thesis at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). He investigated the use of filtration systems in roadside ditches to remove heavy metals from stormwater in cold climates. When temperatures fall below freezing, the moisture in the ground turns to ice, preventing the so-called percolation of stormwater.

“Using road salt can affect the deposition of metals. It is vital to use filtration systems that offer the best possible compromise between allowing water to percolate and cleaning it”, is Monrabal-Martinez’s somewhat simplified explanation.

Fadi Suliman obtained his PhD a few years ago at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Ås. His research looked at treating stormwater in constructed wetlands, in other words using a nature-based technique to treat the water.

“My main focus was on hydraulics and flow patterns in the porous materials used in constructed stormwater wetlands, as well as at how to improve the hydraulic efficiency of constructed wetlands in order to extend their lifespans”, says Suliman.

Real practical value

The practical value of Torres’ work can be exemplified with respect to the increasing challenges associated with stormwater and flooding. Pipes have a limited usefulness – once they are full, they overflow.

“Now there is growing interest in managing water on the surface, by using natural streams and creating channels. In other words, adapting to the original natural environment”, says Torres.

He adds that a side benefit is that this approach is more visually attractive and makes urban areas more pleasant. As well as reducing the risk of material damage, it is good for the mental health of the local residents.

“Traditionally, engineers have been rather blinkered in their thinking, and their focus has been on optimising systems. But the industry is changing at breakneck speed, and I am very grateful that Multiconsult has given me the chance to influence future developments by supporting my work on my PhD”, says Torres.

Investing in knowledge

Multiconsult provides both practical and financial support to employees who want to expand their knowledge, typically by allowing them to use part of their working day for study and research.

“This investment is a natural reflection of the fact that we operate in the knowledge economy. We want our teams to include leading experts who inspire the people around them and raise our joint expertise”, says Sigmund Tøien, who heads the Water and Wastewater Engineering department within the Geo, Water and Environment unit.

He adds that the Norwegian water and wastewater industry is facing major challenges over the coming years. There is a big maintenance backlog, and urbanisation and climate change are both heightening the need for upgrades. The trade association Norwegian Water estimates that around 300 billion Norwegian kroner will need to be invested between now and 2030. In order to overcome this challenge, there is a need to raise skills in relation to decision-making processes, design and execution methods.

“Employing people with PhDs and encouraging staff to obtain industrial PhDs has been a conscious strategy to increase the expertise of the whole water and wastewater engineering community at Multiconsult. In combination with our participation in Programmes for User-driven Research-based Innovation (BIAs) and Centres for Research-driven Innovation (SFOs) such as Klima2050, this creates exciting and meaningful development opportunities for our staff, as well as increasing our expertise in selected disciplines”, adds Tøien.