It’s easy to look at the British Geological Survey and
imagine that it has always been this way – a high-tech organisation, with
precision gadgetry and computer models for any situation that may need
investigation. But in fact only 40 years ago much of the equipment that today’s
geologists and engineers would find indispensable didn’t even exist. In the
Engineering Geology section of the BGS, the section that deals with finding
solutions to engineering problems that have a geological side, much of the essential
equipment introduced over the last four decades was championed by Peter Hobbs.
|Peter, next to the SHRINKiT instrument he helped to invent.|
Peter started his career as a civil engineer, but during his degree studies he had to complete two six month industry placements and his second was with the British Geological Survey, which at the time was based in what is now the geological section of the Natural History Museum, London. He enjoyed his experience so much that when he finished his degree and was offered a job, he took it. At that time, Engineering Geology was a subject in its infancy – it had only been an actual subject for about 10 years and there were only 10 people working in the dark and dusty basement area that focussed on it specifically. This however, was soon to change.
The challenges of our modern society that relate to
engineering geology are now very obvious to us. Anyone who remembers the train
line at Dawlish collapsing into the sea, is interested in the development of
HS2, has had subsidence under their house (I have – we had cracks in our wall I
could put my hand in!!), even the difficulties of new builds in cities like
London and Glasgow all need the solutions provided by engineering geology. Often
the traditional ways of learning more about the soils and clays we build our
society on, just aren’t safe anymore! For instance Peter has been instrumental
as a part of the team that developed a new piece of equipment – the SHRINKiT –
that measures the shrink and swell behaviour of clays. This instrument uses a
laser scanner combined with a digital balance, to measure the changing volume
and weight of a piece of clay as it dries out. This important information produces
a value called the ‘shrinkage limit’ or the point at which the soil or clay
will not lose any more volume regardless of whether it loses more moisture. The
shrinkage limit helps engineers know how the soil or clay is going to behave.
Previous to Peter’s team inventing the SHRINKiT, the most common way of testing
this property of the clay was to dip it in mercury, which can’t have been good
for anyone’s health!
|Archive picture of the Geological Survey Museum|
in Kensington, where the BGS was based until 1976
|This crooked house may look funny, but subsidence|
causes £100s of million in damage each year.
So despite an illustrious 40 years of inventing and engineering for the BGS, Peter Hobbs shows no signs of resting on his laurels.