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detecting underground hazards
July 28, 2021

What lies beneath: detecting underground hazards

Culverts, buried utilities, mine-shafts, sinkholes and underground chemical tanks – just a handful of the hazards and obstacles hidden from conventional surveying but all too ready to delay or even halt infrastructure projects. If undetected, these hazards can result in health and safety implications, workforces being temporarily laid off and financial plans left in tatters.

Enter quantum technology. Automated equipment has long aided chartered surveyors in locating obstacles and now the question is how quantum technology can enhance existing practices. Dr Nicole Metje, Birmingham University’s professor of infrastructure monitoring, points out that many current technologies transmit electromagnetic waves through the ground; they are reflected off buried objects and the consequent reflected wave is received at the surface. However, circumstances such as wet clay all too often reduce or prevent signals penetrating deep into the ground.

Quantum technology applies a technique called atom interferometry: sensing how fast atoms drop in a vacuum chamber, which wards off distortions such as surrounding noise during the measurement process. Gravity signatures from the objects in question then build up accurate depictions of the infrastructure.

Uniting highly advanced skills

Led by Birmingham University, the UK National Quantum Technology Hub in Sensors and Timing brings together physics and engineering specialists from several universities, the National Physical Laboratory, the British Geological Survey and over 70 industry partners. At present, 100 projects are in progress, uniting expertise in physics (for creating an advanced quantum technology sensor) and civil engineering (to ensure that the finished system meets demanding conditions).

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