How can we make infrastructure and our cities far more sustainable in the future?

Professor Nicole Metje

Professor Nicole Metje, is the Head of Enterprise, Engagement and Impact within the School of Engineering, and the Director of the UKCRIC’s National Buried Infrastructure Facility at the University of Birmingham.

Nicole reveals how cutting edge research and facilities at the University of Birmingham are helping to map and detect what lies hidden below ground level.

Modern living standards within developed countries are fundamentally linked to the quality, and continual operation, of the surface and buried infrastructures. Networks of underground utilities that serve our towns and cities are one of the most complex types of networks in the world, and yet are invisible from the ground surface.

A breakdown in one or more of these infrastructures can rapidly result in disruption to society’s functions, and by extension have a detrimental effect upon the economy.

Many of these buried infrastructures are located below roads or footpaths and if access to a buried infrastructure is required (for maintenance or repair of existing, or installation of new, sections of network) then some form of streetworks must be undertaken.

Despite the increasing ability to detect, characterise and monitor objects on land, in sea or in space, the ability to detect buried objects, even in the near surface (first 2 metres below ground surface), remains challenging.

Even with the continuous development of new sensor equipment and more efficient data processing techniques, basic physical limitations and constraints remain, such as challenging ground conditions affecting electro-magnetic signals and the trade-off between depth of penetration and resolution.

As the world engages in ever more complex and demanding transportation, utility networks and construction projects, incomplete knowledge of the subsurface is hampering modern-day business and societal activities and increasing national security risks.

With an estimated 275 000 km of gas pipes, 353 000 km of sewers, 482 000 km of electricity cables, ~450 000 km of water pipes and drains and several million kilometres of telecoms and street lighting in the UK, the problem is significant.

Innovations in civil engineering and sensor development being pioneered at The University of Birmingham could save billions each year and minimise major disruptions to infrastructure works and development.

Located at the University of Birmingham is a ‘one of its kind’ facility for research, education and training in buried infrastructure, ground infrastructure interaction, tunnelling and ground improvements.

Researchers using the facility are improving knowledge of where existing infrastructure is, what condition it is in and the ground it is buried in. It will enable scientists to test a variety of buried infrastructure systems at, or near to, full-scale to help them understand their physical and operational performance.

This includes, for example, pipelines and cables, culverts and tunnels, road foundations and barrier wall systems. It will also allow the validation and testing of novel sensing technologies and data processing concepts.

The resulting scientific evidence base will help inform decisions on innovative engineering of new infrastructure systems, on cost-effective maintenance and adaptation of existing infrastructures, and building in resilience to cities’ infrastructure systems in the face of increasing demands and climate change. In the West Midlands alone, in order to achieve the region’s net zero carbon target of 2041, an unprecedented transformation of infrastructure will be required.

The group has already achieved major breakthroughs in the use of sensor technology such as the ability to map objects hidden below the Earth’s surface, and are working with industrial partners on a Low Carbon smart pipes project.

The team works together with local, national and international industry and organisations to generate sustainable, innovative solutions through research, education and training in a variety of fields such as:

  • buried infrastructure-ground interaction
  • soil stabilisation and improvement
  • geophysical sensing
  • pipeline detection and condition assessment
  • tunnelling
  • trenching & trenchless technologies
  • structural performance of transport-ground-pipeline systems and green-grey infrastructure interdependencies.

Engagement opportunities include technology proof of concepts, PhD Studentships, industrial fellowships and secondments, as well as further professional development opportunities, alongside access to lab facilities and study space, and of course links to the University of Birmingham’s wider academic and industrial collaboration activities.

Learn more by visiting the website for an overview of the facilities: 

If you are looking for innovative solutions to challenges or to create new business pathways, by accessing world-leading scientific expertise and facilities, the University of Birmingham can support and guide your needs.

Get in touch for any enquiries: Dr Nik Venetsaneas email:, tel: +44(0)121 414 8547.