Susanne can sense the big picture

Closeup of geotechnical engineer Susanne Ouellet standing in forest

After six years in industry as a geotechnical engineer, Susanne Ouellet decided to return to graduate studies at the University of Calgary.  She is part of a team researching a fiber optic technology known as distributed acoustic sensing to monitor seismic waves in tailings dams which are designed to retain the waste by-products of mining and are some of the largest engineered structures in the world. Her decision to focus on tailings dam monitoring technologies was impacted by a catastrophic tailings dam failure occurring in Brazil in 2019. The Brumadinho, Brazil tailings dam failure resulted in the death of 270 people and released millions of cubic meters of tailings into the environment.

These types of catastrophic failures have occurred in Canada too. The Mount Polley tailings dam failure which occurred in British Columbia in 2014, released over 21 million cubic meters of tailings into the environment with detrimental impacts to nearby Indigenous communities. As demand for mining and minerals increases, the risk of tailings dam failures is also expected to increase.

That’s why Susanne’s research is so important. It aims to advance fiber optic sensing for tailings dam monitoring applications, mitigating the risk of a potential dam failure. With distributed acoustic sensing, the fiber optic cable provides information similar to thousands of seismic sensors, and can be used to monitor changes in seismic wave speed in the dam. Monitoring these changes can help to improve our understanding of how the performance of the dam is changing over time.

Closeup of geotechnical engineer Susanne Ouellet in a hardhat amoung industrial items in the field

Tailings is an exciting area of growing research, and can lead to many opportunities and career prospects. I enjoy working on solutions in partnership with industry”, says Susanne. “Having a background in earth sciences adds value to those I collaborate with.”

Susanne Ouellet

Susanne collaborates with industry partners from a diverse background and range of expertise that spans tailings engineering, seismology and fiber optic sensing.  Solving some of our most challenging problems requires bringing together multiple perspectives from both academia and the business world. Calgary is an ideal location for this kind of multidisciplinary collaboration with its proximity to nature and the mining industry.

The department of Earth, Energy, and Environment is the perfect environment for Susanne to pursue her goal of researching technologies with the potential to advance tailings dam monitoring best practices.

“The importance of casual conversations among fellow grads, faculty, and industry is huge. Sharing what we’re all working on and learning from one another helps to gain a fresh perspective and explore new ideas for collaboration.”