Introducing PLEXUS, UKCRIC’s lab pump priming project

Introducing PLEXUS, UKCRIC’s lab pump priming project
Researcher and Project Manager (University of Birmingham)
06 November 2019

PLEXUS (Priming Laboratory EXperiments on infrastructure and Urban Systems) is a UKCRIC pump-priming project designed to establish the new collaboration and practice frameworks needed for long-term, successful, collaborative UKCRIC laboratory environments, and to offer the prospect of some quick-win outcomes. These are being developed through the study and analysis of three high added-value infrastructure problems.

UKCRIC’s Laboratories are a national, open, shared resource that form the state-of-the-art, world-class, research infrastructure that academic researchers need if they are to deliver world-leading infrastructure research. They are spaces for collaboration with a core purpose of fostering multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary academic partnerships and activities, delivering academic and industry impact nationally and internationally.

PLEXUS is enabling academics and industry stakeholders to co-produce and test the essential collaborative frameworks crucial for the success of the overall UKCRIC enterprise. This integrated view is driving progress towards the holistic sector mind-set that must underpin transformative thinking and practice in infrastructure provision.

To find out more, or to register an interest in attending the launch of the project’s results, being held on the 21 April 2020 in London, email us at

Soil-Structure Interactions (Problem #1)

All physical infrastructure systems rely upon ground support in some way. Despite this, soil-structure interactions generally, and dynamic and seismic loads particularly, are still poorly understood. Currently, holistic soil-structure interaction (SSI) studies are bespoke, designed from first principles, and hence often perceived as prohibitively costly, deterring imagination and innovation; it steers SSI decision-making back towards conventional, simplified solutions that are perceived to be less risky based on experience. The advent of advanced experimental and analytical tools, as embodied in UKCRIC, presents the opportunity for PLEXUS to establish a next-generation approach to holistic SSI engineering that anticipates and encompasses technological innovations. PLEXUS is advancing this through a focus upon integral bridges.

Harvesting Energy from Infrastructure Systems (Problem #2)

A smart way to obtain affordable and more sustainable thermal energy is to use existing or to-be-constructed infrastructure to recover otherwise wasted heat from their surrounding environments, e.g., tunnels or wastewater networks. This reduces whole life cost and can make such technologies economically feasible. However, because infrastructure systems are currently viewed as delivering a single service, few are explicitly designed to deliver multiple benefits. In addition, there are technical challenges to address before this use of new and existing infrastructure can be mainstreamed. PLEXUS is using the UKCRIC laboratories to gain a better understanding of the thermal exchange processes and to quantify the potential impact upon the stability and performance of existing infrastructure when heat is recovered or stored. In particular, PLEXUS is exploring the effects of temperature extraction on soil strength and stiffness, which may affect the performance of the associated infrastructure (such as pipelines, tunnels and integral bridge structures).

Deterioration of Infrastructure Materials (Problem #3)

There exists a dichotomy in infrastructure materials performance: almost all research uses new, pristine materials while almost all infrastructure is old and has thus undergone some degree of deterioration. Material properties often diminish with ageing (which is accelerated under extreme loading) yet this is often overlooked and infrastructure maintenance is frequently undertaken only when the effects of degradation are clearly visible. This makes their repair more expensive, more intrusive and more disruptive. Over 50% of the UK’s infrastructure budget is spent on maintenance and repair. Using UKCRIC’s laboratory facilities, PLEXUS is advancing understanding of the performance of degraded infrastructure materials by focusing upon integral bridges, which offer the promise of reduced maintenance because they are unjointed, but are subjected to extreme and uneven loadings and thus accelerated material degradation.

Image credit: Monika via Flickr