Laura Dalton: Watching Mass Move Through Rocks and Other Hard Places

8/17 Pratt School of Engineering

New Duke CEE faculty member Laura Dalton specializes in imaging the dynamics of gases and liquids moving through porous materials

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Laura Dalton: Watching Mass Move Through Rocks and Other Hard Places

Laura Dalton has joined the faculty of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) in Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, beginning August 1. Dalton uses advanced 3D imaging techniques to investigate how mass moves through porous materials like cement and rock and will bring this expertise to a wide range of projects, including those focused on carbon sequestration and sustainable material characterization.

Part way through her undergraduate degree in civil engineering at West Virginia University, Dalton learned about X-ray computed tomography (CT) as a Mickey Leland intern at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).

Already armed with a degree in graphic design, she knew how powerful the right imagery at the right place and the right time could be. But using images to help solve challenges as grand and complex as climate change was a novel and exciting prospect.

“We were looking at all these fascinating dynamics with cements-based and geological materials to see how carbon moves through and can be trapped within them,” Dalton said. “It showed me how important different types of imaging can be to solving a problem, and I really enjoyed it.”

In the years since, Dalton has expanded her imaging repertoire to encompass techniques far beyond traditional X-ray CT scans. She uses neutron tomography to obtain data complementary to what X-rays provide. And she recently completed a Fulbright Fellowship in Finland, where she learned about electrical tomography—a technique that uses electrical current to peer inside of an object without harming it.

“If the cement-making industry were its own country, it’d be the third biggest producer of CO2 behind the United States and China. If we can better understand how CO2 moves through concrete, we can hone processes to trap it and make this common building material much more environmentally friendly.”

Whatever technique Dalton is employing, her goal is to understand better how liquids and/or gases are traveling through rock-like materials. In geological applications, her work can help researchers figure out how best to sequester carbon dioxide (CO2) within geological materials. And in the realm of construction, her research is focused on offsetting the CO2 emissions from cement manufacturing by putting CO2 back into concrete in the mineral form to create a modern, sustainable infrastructure for future generations.  

“If the cement-making industry were its own country, it’d be the third biggest producer of CO2 behind the United States and China,” Dalton said. “If we can better understand how CO2 moves through concrete and which components of concrete it wants to react with, we can hone processes to trap it and make this incredibly common building material much more environmentally friendly.”

Dalton is, in her own words, is “an experimentalist through and through.” She might visit a geological site to study a certain type of sandstone, or she might mix up a new concrete recipe in her lab. But at the end of the day, she’s running physical experiments on these materials to see how they react and interact with various conditions and substances on a micrometer-scale level.

Her preference for getting her hands dirty makes her a perfect fit for Duke CEE. According to Dalton, she’s already listed as a collaborator on three grant applications with her new colleagues, ranging from investigating how rocks behave in extreme environments to how researchers might put specific types of waste back into porous materials. She’ll also have the opportunity to work with and create connections with her former colleagues at North Carolina State University, where she recently finished her PhD in civil engineering, and with colleagues at NETL.

Dalton also plans to play a role in Duke Engineering’s continuing efforts to increase diversity throughout its ranks as well as engineering as a whole. Part of the reason she completed her Fulbright in Finland, she said, was to understand better the challenges facing people moving into a new culture while trying to work as a professional. She also participated in Purdue University’s Trailblazers in Engineering program, which focuses on preparing outstanding scholars who are committed to increasing the success of underrepresented communities of engineers.

“I learned a ton from the program that I’m going to try to apply to my own lab, like trying to remove biases from the hiring process by getting rid of details like names and schools to just focus on the qualifications,” Dalton said. “I’d love to help other faculty with that if they’re interested, and I also hope to do a lot of outreach to local communities, especially in support of women in underrepresented groups.”

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