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Swimmers, tubers, and boaters often have the same question when they are in or around the water: what exactly is down there?

UT’s Henry Goodrich Chair of Excellence Thanos Papanicolaou has helped solve that riddle by developing a way for researchers to see underwater sediment and predict its likelihood for mobility.

Thanos Papanicolaou

Papanicolaou uses modern technology to build on a concept called the aerial probability of entrainment, which helps predict how underwater materials will spread. His work, in turn, built on a theory pioneered by Hans Albert Einstein, son of the legendary physicist.

Einstein was a key figure in the development of what is now known as hydraulic engineering—the study of water’s flow, how it carries sediment, and how it impacts the environment.

While Einstein relied on calculations and probabilities to determine aspects of flow, Papanicolaou’s application of modern sensor technology has taken the work one step further, improving reliability and accuracy.

For that breakthrough, Papanicolaou has been named the 2018 Hans Albert Einstein award winner from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). It is perhaps the most prestigious distinction that someone in hydraulic engineering can earn.

“I’m honored to be chosen for such a major award and for the recognition it brings to my work,” said Papanicolaou, who earned his doctorate in 1997 by doing his dissertation on Einstein’s work.

“Winning an award named for someone whose research you studied and built off of is a surreal feeling.”

Using advanced techniques such as aerial sensing and image analysis as well as the use of green lidar and radio frequency IDs to map mobilization of the river beds, Papanicolaou was able to identify sediment flow. He incorporated turbulence to predict how bursts of turbulence affect sediment movement.

His work could give rise to other uses, including improved waterway designs that could eliminate the need to dredge.

“The concept of the probability of entrainment linked with sensing techniques allows us to have eyes underwater and then to develop a new set of models based off sediment flow and residence time,” said Papanicolaou, who also serves as director of the Tennessee Water Resources Research Center. “It opens up the possibility of knowing the life expectancy of dams to the design of self-cleaning waterways through a better understanding of flow.”

ASCE has given the Einstein award annually since 1989 for “significant contribution to the engineering profession in the area of erosion control, sedimentation, and/or waterway development,” and considers researchers and projects from around the world.

Papanicolaou will receive the award at a ceremony during the Environmental Water Resources Institute Congress in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in June.

Since 1997, he has received nearly $20 million in combined funding from the National Science Foundation; NASA; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the Office of Naval Research; the US Departments of Agriculture, Energy, and Transportation; and several state departments of transportation. Papanicolaou spearheaded the establishment of the Hydraulics and Sedimentation Lab at UT and is currently co-director of the NSF’s Intensively Managed Landscapes Critical Zone Observatory.

C O N T A C T :

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)