Friday, 18 July 2014

Peter Hobbs – a pioneering engineer... by Hazel Gibson

Hi, I’m Hazel Gibson, a PhD researcher from PlymouthUniversity, who is interested in what people think about geology and how that affects how we as geoscientists communicate it. For the last two weeks I have been up at the British Geological Survey speaking to the scientists about their work, what makes them passionate about it and why they think it’s important to us. The following is a series of short 'people posts' about the real faces behind the BGS.


Peter, next to the SHRINKiT instrument he helped to invent.
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 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.
 

Archive picture of the Geological Survey Museum
in Kensington
, where the BGS was based until 1976  
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!
 
 
This crooked house may look funny, but subsidence
causes £100s of million in damage each year.
Another technological innovation that Peter advocates for is called LiDAR, a remote sensing system that is a kind of light based radar that is used by geoscientists all over the world to help detect ground movement. In Britain it is particularly useful when looking at landslides, a type of geological investigation that really highlights the dangers of engineering geology. “There was once a rock fall on the Yorkshire coast, which landed where a colleague and I had been standing two seconds earlier and we literally just missed it by the skin of our teeth!” Peter told me, but by using LiDAR to survey the cliff faces, engineers and geologists don’t have to put themselves in these difficult and sometimes dangerous positions as often.

Despite the dangers, Peter really loves engineering geology, especially the team-working ethos! He continues to invent new technology to help engineers understand rock and soil behaviour and he is instrumental in helping to re-interpret geological maps so they are more understandable to engineers and other (non-geologist!) people that have to use them. He is even involved in speaking with the public – helping to develop a brilliant demonstration of what quicksand is by using a special sand tank and sacrificing a Playmobil Lifeguard in the name of science! 



So despite an illustrious 40 years of inventing and engineering for the BGS, Peter Hobbs shows no signs of resting on his laurels.

by Hazel

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