Searching for a Sustainable Future

Empowering Geoscience and Engineering Education for the Energy Transition.

Dr. Rasoul Sorkhabi, a CvEEN Research Professor, and Milind Deo, a Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Director of the Energy & Geoscience Institute, are pioneering a transformative approach to geoscience and geoengineering education. Their work, recently featured in the prestigious “Issues in Science and Technology” magazine by the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, seeks to position geoscience and petroleum engineering departments to be at the forefront of the energy transition movement.

In a changing energy landscape where petroleum engineering and geoscience employment has declined and program closures loom, Dr. Sorkhabi and Dr. Deo call attention to the importance of subsurface geoscientists and engineers in bringing the world towards a low-carbon future.

To preserve and revitalize these programs, they argue, universities can design curricula centered on energy sustainability and environmental responsibility. By offering core courses that focus on energy transition research and development, students can acquire the interdisciplinary skills necessary for adapting to the evolving energy sector.

Geoscientists and engineers are uniquely equipped to explore Earth’s interconnected systems in 3D and 4D, enabling them to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of energy. Their expertise can be applied to various domains, including critical minerals, carbon sequestration, hydrogen storage, and geothermal energy development.

Moreover, these programs can serve as models for fostering innovative collaborations between academia and industry, embracing diversity and interdisciplinary work, and addressing pressing societal and environmental challenges. By reshaping geoscience and engineering education to meet the demands of the future, it’s time to inspire a new generation of students passionate about sustainable energy solutions.

Read Drs. Sorkhabi and Deo’s full publication in “Issues in Science and Technology” here.


Balancing Academics, Athletics, and Environmental Advocacy

Chloe Kockler: Remarkable Student-Athlete and Engineering major

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to balance a demanding engineering major with a student-athlete lifestyle and still find time for passions outside of academics? Meet Chloe Kockler: a remarkable student-athlete and a Civil and Environmental Engineering major at the U.

As a fifth-year student, Chloe is pursuing a degree in Environmental Engineering with a minor in Nuclear Engineering, and she’s also on the U’s cross country and track teams.

Chloe Kockler, Student-Athlete and Engineering Major

Chloe is a committed engineering major, driven by a desire to make a meaningful contribution to the world, with aspirations to potentially earn her Ph.D. Yet Cloe’s academic journey began in a different place.

Chloe started as a biology major, with hopes of eventually attending medical school. Yet, during her freshman year, the desire to create a positive impact on the environment became an overwhelming passion for her. Fueled by a desire to champion sustainability and ecological well-being, she made the huge switch to Environmental Engineering.

To be a better champion of sustainability, Chloe introduced a minor in Nuclear Engineering in her third year, which allows her to research innovative, carbon-neutral energy solutions that hold the potential to transform the world’s current energy landscape.

Combining the rigorous demands of an engineering major plus a minor with the responsibilities of a student-athlete is no easy feat, and Chloe’s experience has been anything but linear: The journey has been marked by injuries and health challenges. Chloe’s fortitude has been tested, and she’s a stronger student and athlete for persevering.

“As an engineering major, I think being determined and resilient is really crucial to success,” said Chloe. “In addition, being a student athlete also teaches you to have a really strong work ethic and great time management skills. I can attribute my success both in and outside of the classroom to both of those characteristics.”

The work ethic Chloe has on the track and cross-country course is present in her research as well. She passionately works alongside Dr. Emily Marron in her lab.

“My experience with her has been nothing short of amazing. She is such an inspiring person in and out of work, and her professional experience is really unmatched.”

Chloe is currently immersed in her honors thesis research project under the guidance of Dr. Marron.

In her rare free time, Chloe enjoys a diverse array of activities. Skiing, reading, horseback riding, rock climbing, and painting are just a few of the hobbies she enjoys. These breaks serve as a rejuvenating escape, allowing her to explore the year-round outdoor adventures Utah has to offer.

We eagerly await Chloe’s future accomplishments and the positive changes they will undoubtedly bring to the field of Environmental Engineering!



Understanding Studtite:

Nicholas Kurtyka’s Award-Winning Research in Nuclear Engineering

Nicholas Kurtyka, a Ph.D. Nuclear Engineering candidate at the U, has been honored with the prestigious U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) award. The esteemed award recognizes Nicholas’s SCGSR research proposal, titled “A Mechanistic Study of the Thermal Decomposition of Studtite and its Intermediates.”

Nicholas will carry out much of this research, as part of his doctoral dissertation, at the historic Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

The opportunities this award affords will not only advance Nicholas’s Ph.D. studies, but also make significant contributions to the mission of the DOE Office of Science: Dr. Ping Yang, a prominent researcher at LANL, will provide invaluable support for Nicholas’s research. Her mentorship will play a pivotal role in achieving the goals of Nicholas’s Ph.D. dissertation, bridging the gap between experimental findings and a fundamental understanding of underlying mechanisms.

In essence, Nicholas’s research aims to unravel the intricacies of the thermal decomposition of studtite, a secondary uranium mineral, into α-UO3. This computational study combines Molecular Dynamics (MD), specifically employing the nudged elastic band method (NEB), and DFT to model the various phases involved in the decomposition process. This includes creating a realistic structure for the intermediate am-U2O7, determining the energetically optimal decomposition pathway, and proposing a pathway from am-U2O7 to α-UO3. Achieving these objectives will significantly enrich our comprehension of how studtite transforms during calcination, thereby benefiting the development of nuclear fuels and the long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel.

Nicholas is most appreciative of Dr. Luther McDonald, his CvEEN advisor, Dr. Ping Yang (his sponsor at LANL), and Dr. Aurora Clark (committee member) for all of their help in creating and refining the scope of the project.­



Shaping a Safer Environment:

Over $10 Million from Department of Energy to Support Reducing CO2 Emissions in Uinta Basin

Dr. Ting Xiao and Dr. Brian McPherson are currently engaged in a comprehensive project focused on carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) hubs. Their work is part of the CarbonSAFE II: Storage Complex Feasibility initiative, which aims to determine the viability of commercial CO2 storage in Utah’s Uinta Basin.

The $ 10,033,232, granted in large part by the Department of Energy, will support an extensive range of activities, including high-resolution societal analysis, geological characterization, technical assessments, economic evaluations, and environmental analyses.

The main goal of CarbonSAFE II is to expedite Deseret Power‘s evaluation of large-scale CO2 capture capabilities. By pooling additional sources of CO2 storage hub development in the region, the project is a significant step towards cleaner energy production. By capturing and storing substantial amounts of CO2 generated by industrial processes, especially those linked to fossil fuel combustion, the initiative actively contributes to shaping a safer environment.

The contract is expected to be finalized in October, with a start date of October 1, 2023.

Dr. Xiao’s and Dr. McPherson’s work, along with the many others involved in the CarbonSAFE II initiative, holds great environmental significance:

By directly tackling the urgent problem of carbon emissions by promoting the capture and storage of CO2, it supports the adoption of cleaner energy sources, emphasizes meticulous environmental analysis, and drives community development efforts.

These combined endeavors will work to combat climate change, enhance air and water quality, and stimulate sustainable economic growth. All these facets are crucial for fostering a healthier, more environmentally responsible future.



Student Spotlight: Senior Scholar-Athlete Joey Boylston

Joey Boylston Balances Engineering Excellence and Athletic Grit

After excelling in his high school STEM classes and realizing his childhood love for Lego building could translate into a career, Joey Boylston decided to trade his coastal town of Charleston, South Carolina for the towering Wasatch Front to pursue a degree in Civil Engineering at The University of Utah, where he’s currently a senior focusing on Construction Engineering.

Yet the rigorous curriculum required in an engineering degree hasn’t been Joey’s only challenge—he’s also the team captain of the U’s men’s lacrosse team.

Facing his final lacrosse season this coming spring, Joey reflects on his time as a Civil Engineering major and his role as the men’s lacrosse team captain, recognizing how these dual roles helped forge his discipline both in the field and the classroom.

“Being an Engineering Major and student athlete definitely comes with its challenges,” Joey reflects. Not to mention being a 3-year starter and captain of a Division 1 team. Yet Joey also said he wouldn’t trade the early mornings and late nights for anything, noting how his career in athletics impacted his work as student, and vice versa.

“Both require an immense amount of hard work and self-motivation,” Joey said. “And the hard work I have had to put in on the field has had to translate to the classroom as well.”

Approaching his final lacrosse season, Joey aims to specialize in Construction or Structural Engineering after he graduates, with aspirations to establish his own company. He holds a deep appreciation for the mentorship of Dr. Christian Brockman, who fueled his passion for and expertise in Construction Engineering.

Scheduled to graduate in December 2024, Joey plans to remain in Utah for the foreseeable future, though he hasn’t ruled out a return to his native South Carolina. Catch him on the field this spring or at graduation in December 2024!

Joey on the field with his mother.

Joey teaching a lacrosse summer camp.

U of U Professor Enhancing Earthquake Infrastructure Resilience

The Next Generation Liquefaction (NGL) Project

Dr. Steven Bartlett, funded by a pool-fund USDOT project, the Mountain Plains Consortium, and the Utah Department of Transportation, is one of the Lead Investigators researching earthquake-related infrastructure protection.

Specifically, the project focuses on liquefaction, a perilous event where water-saturated soil momentarily loses its strength and rigidity due to earthquake vibrations, causing it to act like a liquid temporarily.

The hazards arising from liquefaction are numerous. Just a few include:

Infrastructure and Structures:

  • Lateral spreading can undermine roads, buildings, and especially bridges.
  • Bridges and elevated highways might fail if their foundational supports become destabilized.

Geological and Environmental Hazards:

  • Dams are at risk of failure, potentially leading to downstream flooding.
  • Underwater landslides induced by liquefaction can trigger tsunamis.

Utilities and Contaminants:

  • Underground utilities, including pipes and cables, are prone to breakage.
  • Areas impacted by liquefaction might undergo permanent subsidence.
  • Contaminated soils, when liquefied, can spread pollutants to cleaner regions or even water sources.

Grasping the complexities and risks of liquefaction is pivotal in urban planning and civil engineering. This knowledge is essential to devise strategies that can effectively mitigate damages during seismic events.

Titled The Next Generation Liquefaction (NGL) Project, this international project is advancing the state of the art in liquefaction research and working toward providing end users with a consensus approach to assess liquefaction potential within a probabilistic and risk-informed framework. Specifically, NGL’s goal is to first collect and organize liquefaction information in a common and comprehensive database to provide all researchers with a substantially larger, more consistent, and more reliable source of liquefaction data than existed previously. Based on this database, we will create probabilistic models that provide hazard- and risk-consistent bases for assessing liquefaction susceptibility, the potential for liquefaction to be triggered in susceptible soils, and the likely consequences.

The project, in collaboration with the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research (PEER) Center, Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), and others, consists of two phases: (1) building a comprehensive database and (2) developing predictive models. They have created a well-documented database with historical cases of worldwide liquefaction-induced lateral spread from several earthquakes.

Dr. Bartlett is leading the efforts in gathering information regarding liquefaction-induced lateral spread This type of earthquake-induced land sliding is caused by horizontal soil movement resulting from soil liquefaction during earthquakes. Such movements can cause considerable damage to infrastructure. Dr. Bartlett’s research focuses on enhancing empirical and numerical methods to estimate this ground displacement.

The recently published report highlights advancements in empirical modeling, including a large dataset and thorough comparisons of existing models through simulations. Importantly, it introduces new metrics and techniques, such as Bayesian statistics and a modified linear regression model, while expanding the probabilistic framework for predicting lateral spread.

The Wasatch Front in Utah has a considerable liquefaction and lateral spread hazard. More information and maps regarding the severity and extent of the liquefaction hazard zones can be found here. This webpage contains several reports completed primarily from funding from the United States Geological Survey funded by the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP).




Advancing the Nuclear Forensics Community:

+$1.3 Million in Nuclear Forensics Research Awarded to Dr. McDonald by U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Dr. Luther McDonald‘s research has received the 2023 Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction: Nuclear Forensics Research Award (NFRA), with a budget of $1,395,000 to support 36-months of laboratory experiments and student development.

For decades, the nuclear forensic community has wanted to use oxygen stable isotope ratios (18O/16O) to determine the origin of materials, but the process was unclear. Since 2017, Luther’s research team has collaborated with experts in stable isotope geochemistry at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) through the Seaborg Graduate Student Fellowship Programs. Nuclear engineering students at the U would make samples in Luther’s laboratory, then use the unique facilities at LLNL to characterize the oxygen isotope ratio. Recently, the team discovered that certain uranium processing conditions yield distinct oxygen isotope ratios on the final product. With funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U team will use this recent discovery to create standardized U-oxide samples in controlled environments. They will then work with LLNL to use three techniques: bulk fluorination, laser fluorination, and thermogravimetric analysis with isotope ratio infrared spectroscopy (TGA-IRIS) to analyze the oxygen composition of the samples.

This collaboration combines the University of Utah’s radiochemistry and nuclear material synthesis expertise with LLNL’s stable isotope geochemistry skills. Completing this research will help link production history with the production location in a nuclear forensics’ investigation.

A significant aspect of this work is student development and training. The complex experiments will require students to develop advanced laboratory skills and the students will have ample opportunities for success through internships at LLNL and access to unique facilities at the U, including the Utah Nanofab. Success from the student’s research will result in numerous peer-reviewed publications and conference proceedings.

The overall success of this research will have a significant impact on advancing the nuclear forensics community and developing a pipeline of future nuclear forensics experts.

Above: Former PhD student Aaron Chalifoux is operating the gas manifolds to control the atmosphere in the nearby furnaces. The furnaces can be operated fully inert with pure nitrogen or helium, in air, or in a reducing atmosphere such as 5% hydrogen in nitrogen gas. For different atmospheres and furnace temperatures, we can control the synthesis of uranium oxides. This early research with Aaron was supported with two Seaborg Graduate Fellowships at LLNL in 2020 and 2021. Data from those efforts laid the groundwork for the recently funded NFRA.

Above: A sample of uranium oxide is being removed from an environmental storage container. The light color indicates it’s likely a uranium ore concentrate (UOC) or a lightly calcined uranium oxide such as UO3. These uranium oxides are made under controlled atmospheres by PhD students working with Dr. McDonald. For the NFRA, small aliquots of these samples will be shipped to LLNL for detailed analysis of the oxygen isotope ratios.



Honoring Alan W. Layton

The Legacy of the Layton Engineering Building

By now you’ve probably heard the previously known HEDCO Building has been rebranded as the Layton Engineering Building (LEB) as part of a $5.3m renovation project, giving engineering students cutting-edge new labs. You can read more about the renovation here, but today we’d like to talk about the significance of the rededication to Alan. W. Layton and why his life’s story became a legacy for The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the John and Marcia Price College of Engineering.

His life’s story, after all, is remarkable as well as one marked by triumph over extraordinary challenges.

Born in 1917 as the youngest of ten children, Alan W. Layton weathered the challenges of the Great Depression by contributing to his family’s welfare by working in the agriculture and the railroad industries. These early experiences instilled in him a strong work ethic that guided him throughout his career.

In 1937, Alan began his journey as a Civil Engineering student and varsity basketball player at the University of Utah. After his second year, he left the basketball team to prioritize his studies. Alan was passionate about engineering, but unfortunately the outbreak of World War II would disrupt his education. In what would become a trope in his legacy, however, Layton rose above the adversity through his service and sacrifice in the war.

At the rank of captain, Layton led a battery of soldiers into France a mere 42 days after D-Day. His exceptional leadership and consequent trust his men had in him enabled them to prevail across the country, leading them to Belgium, where Layton was severely wounded by a landmine during the Battle of the Bulge. For his leadership, bravery, and his mission’s success, Alan was honored with the prestigious Purple Heart.

Dave Layton, Alan W.’s son and current CEO of Layton Construction, recalls his father’s life story at the Layton Building Dedication in August, 2023.

Following his recovery, Alan returned to the University of Utah to complete his degree. Balancing his responsibilities as a family man with studies proved challenging after his four-year hiatus, and he fell just 15 credit hours short of graduation. Nevertheless, the university later recognized him with distinguished alumni awards, including an honorary Master of Civil Engineering degree.

Despite not graduating after returning from the war, Alan was still determined to make a career for himself in Civil Engineering. In his basement in 1953, he founded Layton Construction Company. His unwavering commitment to diligence, integrity, and relationships formed the bedrock principles that continue to guide the company’s ethos. Over the span of 70 years, Layton Construction Company evolved from its humble beginnings into one of the most esteemed construction firms in the United States, undertaking projects across various industries and locations nationwide.

Alan also left a significant mark on both the construction industry and his community, contributing to organizations like the Great Salt Lake Council, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Associated General Contractors. Together with his wife Mona, he lovingly raised ten children.

Back in 1953, few would have thought it a good idea for a man with no engineering degree and only two employees to start a successful construction company in his basement. Yet today, Layton Construction Company yields more than $380 million in annual revenue, has four wholly owned subsidiaries, and has built more than a handful of the impressive buildings at the U.

Previously used for mere storage, the new Layton Engineering Building now houses cutting-edge labs which will innovative education and produce consummate research. In that sense, the building is truly a testament to Alan W. Layton’s legacy in that is has transformed from undistinguished conditions to an esteemed academic structure.