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Research
Highlights 2020

Prof. Katrin Beyer, Vice-Dean for Digitalisation and Open Science

Our response to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 reflected the rich diversity of the research being conducted at our school, along with the outstanding resilience of our staff. We turned the challenges posed by the pandemic into opportunities, with several of our labs focusing their research efforts on the issue and developing viable solutions. For example, Prof. Tamar Kohn, who heads EPFL’s Environmental Chemistry Laboratory, provided valuable information on virus concentrations in Switzerland’s wastewater in conjunction with the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag). Prof. Andrea Rinaldo, who heads EPFL’s Laboratory of Ecohydrology (ECHO), quickly demonstrated the effectiveness of social distancing and lockdown measures on containing the spread of the virus in Italy when the country was still the focal point of infections in Europe. Prof. Claudia Binder, who heads the Laboratory on Human-Environment Relations in Urban Systems and Prof. Vincent Kaufmann, who heads EPFL’s Urban Sociology Laboratory, worked with the University of Lausanne and the Idiap Research Institute to conduct a survey on how citizens were coping with Switzerland’s partial lockdown.

Meanwhile, media outlets consulted our architects and sociologists, such as Dr. Valentin Bourdon, Prof. Bruno Marchand, Senior Scientist Luca Pattaroni and Prof. Vincent Kaufmann, for expert opinions on teleworking, mobility or how urban housing is amplifying the pandemic’s societal impacts, such as by exacerbating inequality, aggravating feelings of isolation and exposing the limitations of current housing solutions in terms of well-being.

More recently, Prof. Alexandre Alahi, who heads EPFL’s Laboratory of Visual Intelligence for Transportation Laboratory repurposed a 3D sensor originally designed for self-driving cars to help improve compliance with social distancing requirements, by calculating the distance between people in a group and interpreting their interactions.

These achievements show that researchers across our three disciplines are contributing to the collective effort to develop pertinent responses for better understanding the pandemic and keeping our community informed about the many ways it’ is affecting our lives. While the pandemic dominated the last year, other global issues remain also at the focus of the research work of many ENAC groups: observing the effects of climate change from the Swiss Alps to the North and South Poles; developing innovative systems to drive the energy transition; promoting a reasoned adoption of digital technology; and ensuring the long-term sustainability of our cities. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the ENAC researchers for their hard work throughout what was a uniquely challenging year.

Research highlights 2020

Reducing human-induced earthquake risk
Researchers at EPFL and the Swiss Federal Office of Energy have devised strategies for reducing the earthquake risk associated with geothermal energy, CO2 storage and other human activities happening deep underground.
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Predicting hydraulic fracture propagation more accurately
Researchers at EPFL have developed a new model to calculate hydraulic fracture propagation. Acclaimed for its accuracy by experts, the model better predicts fracture geometry and the energy cost of hydraulic fracturing – a widely used technique in areas such as CO2 storage, hydrocarbon extraction, dams and volcano hazard monitoring.
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“Green economy”: an ambiguous concept that is on the way out
Concerns about climate change have given rise to a whole series of concepts that are widely used despite their lack of a concrete definition. EPFL researchers have taken a closer look at the “green economy” concept in particular to clarify exactly what it means.
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Participatory democracy platforms gain traction in Switzerland
An initial survey by researchers at EPFL has found that local and regional governments are increasingly turning to digital technology to understand the views of their citizens, especially on planning and development proposals.
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Rivers are warming at the same rate as the atmosphere
Researchers at EPFL and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) have found that the temperature of Swiss rivers is rising steadily. This situation is straining ecosystems and could limit the use of this water in Switzerland’s nuclear and hydropower industries.
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What if half of Switzerland’s rooftops produced electricity?
Researchers at EPFL are assessing Switzerland’s solar power potential. Their results show that photovoltaic panels could be installed on more than half of the country’s 9.6 million rooftops. The resulting power would meet more than 40% of Swiss electricity demand.
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Our carbon footprint is highly impacted by how we live
Swiss households have excessively large carbon footprints. However, that footprint depends more on socio-economic status than location – whether the household is in the countryside or the city – because people travel more in the country but consume more in cities.
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Geneva and Casablanca: two approaches to globalized urban development
For his PhD thesis at EPFL, Kamil Hajji compared urban development projects in two major cities – each a business and financial hub, but in countries with very different societies and political systems. He found that democracy can significantly influence how globalization plays out at the local level.
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Climate change will disrupt existing energy systems
As climate changes and extreme weather events become more commonplace, we will need to fundamentally rethink how we produce renewable energy. Researchers at EPFL have developed a simulation method to reduce the adverse influences due to climate-related uncertainties in the energy sector and guarantee robust operation of energy infrastructure during extreme climate events.
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How cities have tamed counterculture
An unprecedented study by EPFL researchers spanning three cities – Geneva, Lisbon and Ljubljana – has revealed how, over the past 40 years, urban cultural policy has blunted the subversive force of counterculture. The change has been so dramatic that, today, art is reduced to a regulated form of profit-making entertainment within a defined space.
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The implications of the coronavirus for architecture
The global lockdown caused by the coronavirus has brought the shortcomings and social inequality inherent in modern housing into stark relief. This presents architects with an opportunity to learn some important lessons for their future work. Valentin Bourdon, who is currently completing his thesis at EPFL on the collective aspects of housing, offers his thoughts on this issue.
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Indoor air quality merits closer attention
A study covering all of French-speaking Switzerland found that energy-efficient renovation work on residential buildings tends to overlook the question of indoor air quality. The study’s authors, mainly from EPFL and the School of Engineering and Architecture of Fribourg (HEIA-FR), have called for greater attention to this issue.
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Containment measures avoid 200,000 hospitalizations in Italy
Researchers have modeled the effects of containment and social distancing measures implemented by the Italian government to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Their findings show that contagion transmission was reduced by 45% in March. The model will now be used to analyze possible future scenarios.
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Covid-19: using wastewater to track the pandemic
EPFL researchers, working in association with the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag), have developed a method for detecting the novel coronavirus in wastewater samples. Their method has been tested successfully on samples collected during the first phase of the pandemic, paving the way to an early-stage warning system.
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How organic architecture can shape dense, diverse cityscapes
In a new book, researchers from EPFL examine the history of organic architecture, complete with telling examples of the genre, from its emergence in the early 20th century to the present day. They observe that the movement is enjoying a revival – particularly in Switzerland – that’s being driven by the demands of high-density urban development.
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New and improved drone mapping software
For his thesis, an EPFL PhD student has enhanced the accuracy and reliability of drone mapping – a technique that is gaining traction across many sectors of society.
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Switzerland’s lockdown has sharply reduced the cases of COVID-19
EPFL researchers have modeled the effects of measures taken in the country to slow the spread of coronavirus. According to their estimates, the contamination rate has fallen by between 53% and 92%, depending on the canton, and people’s movements have been reduced by 30% to 80%.
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A new tool for identifying climate-adaptive coral reefs
Climate change is threatening the world’s coral reefs, and saving them all will prove impossible. A team from EPFL has developed a method for identifying corals with the greatest adaptive potential to heat stress. The research, published in the journal Evolutionary Applications, should support improved and better-targeted marine biodiversity conservation strategies.
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The health of ecosystems based on the ground beetle
EPFL scientists just published an open tool for predicting the dynamics of ground beetle populations – important bioindicators for sustainable park management and for monitoring ecosystems – in Italy’s Gran Paradiso National Park. The tool incorporates satellite and other remote sensing data.
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Geospatial digital monitoring of COVID-19 cases
SARS-CoV-2 disseminates via close contact during daily activities, forming clusters of cases. A crucial challenge to contain the spread lies in the early detection of these outbreak clusters by means of geospatial tools and statistics
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Early trends emerge from Swiss lockdown survey
A research team ran an online survey from 8 April to 10 May in order to gauge Swiss residents’ views and experiences of life under the lockdown. Participation was unexpectedly high, with close to 7,000 people answering the questionnaire. Here is a first report
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“It felt like we were living on another planet”
Julia Schmale is a truly adventurous researcher, and her favorite places to explore are extreme environments in far-flung corners of the world. During her most recent trip, she was stranded in the icy Arctic for four months, a long way from COVID-19 but impacted by its effects.
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Reinventing the contemporary city, with Elena Cogato Lanza
Summer series: a calling for research. If you want to predict the future, learn from the past – this saying neatly encapsulates the career of Elena Cogato Lanza, a senior scientist at EPFL and an expert on the history and theory of urban planning.
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Uranium reveals its true nature
EPFL scientists have made a significant discovery in how nanoscale minerals form naturally, including the way in which they transition from a soluble to a solid state. Their findings could be used to inform radioactive waste management.
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A model for keeping the pandemic in check in Italy
A team of researchers has been modeling the potential spread of the coronavirus pandemic in Italy. Using their model, they can calculate the number of exposed and highly infectious individuals and the daily isolation efforts required to bring down the epidemic curve.
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Protecting estuarine cities from rising sea levels
As climate change raises sea levels, estuarine cities are facing up to the dual threat of flooding and significant erosion. Research by a joint team from EPFL and the UNSW Sydney sheds new light on the hydrodynamic forces at play and paves the way for preventive strategies.
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How the Swiss fared under partial lockdown
A joint study by EPFL, the Idiap Research Institute and the University of Lausanne’s Institute of Psychology has provided us with a unique snapshot of how Swiss residents experienced the partial lockdown measures resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. The findings include gender disparities, doubts about the future and hopes for change.
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Qui sont les plus « verts » à l’EPFL ?
Les femmes et le personnel administratif et technique présentent le plus fort comportement pro-environnemental.
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Viruses could become harder to kill
A recent EPFL study shows that pathogenic viruses may be able to develop resistance to warm temperatures and some types of disinfectant. That – combined with global warming and more frequent and longer heat waves – could make it even harder to keep them from spreading.
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Climate: Iodic acid influences cloud formation at the North Pole
An international team of scientists from EPFL, the Paul Scherrer Institute and Stockholm University has identified a novel driver of new aerosol particle formation in the Arctic during the summer to fall transition. The authors show that iodic acid is important for forming new particles which subsequently influence the formation of clouds and their radiative effect over the Arctic pack ice.
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Using electric current to stabilize low-permeability soils
EPFL scientists have developed a new approach to stabilizing clay soils. The method involves using a battery-like system to apply electric current to carbonate and calcium ions in order to promote soil consolidation. Their findings were published yesterday in Scientific Reports.
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EPFL scientist gains fresh insight into the origins of earthquakes
The speed and intensity with which seismic waves propagate after an earthquake depend mainly on forces occurring deep inside the rocks along a fault line, according to a study by EPFL scientist François Passelègue. His sophisticated models are giving us fresh insight into the factors that can trigger an earthquake.
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How American architects reinvented “liquid stone”
Roberto Gargiani, an architectural historian and professor at EPFL, has penned a new history of concrete in the United States from 1940 to 1970. Across three volumes, he explores the work of the time’s leading architects and reflects on the major breakthroughs that ushered in a new era of design and construction.
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Computational methods to ease the reuse of construction components
Algorithms developed at EPFL can help architects to design building structures that incorporate both new and reused components, thereby lowering their environmental impact.
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Mapping to predict the distribution of ticks in Switzerland
A comprehensive study by EPFL and Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) has enabled researchers to map the geographical distribution of ticks in Switzerland for the first time, as well as to determine whether they are carriers of chlamydia. Little is known about these bacteria, but ticks can potentially pass them to humans. The team found that zones conducive to tick proliferation have expanded by 10% over the last decade.
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Applying environmental genomics to coral conservation
Coral reefs are extremely sensitive to temperature, making them particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But some corals seem able to adapt. Researchers from EPFL and the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD) studied a reef in New Caledonia, combining approaches from environmental science and genomics to characterize their adaptive potential and develop targeted conservation strategies.
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Vaud residents embrace clean commuting and public transport
EPFL has established a comprehensive overview of commuting practices by Vaud residents and their views on available means of transport.
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Study measures Switzerland’s potential geothermal heating capacity
An EPFL PhD student has calculated the maximum amount of geothermal energy that could theoretically be extracted using ground-source heat pumps in the Cantons of Vaud and Geneva. In a study combining data on the area available for such systems with computer modeling techniques, she found stark differences between geothermal energy’s potential in urban versus rural areas.
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Rethinking urban planning for sub-Saharan African cities
For his thesis project at EPFL, Armel Kemajou studied the peri-urban areas of Lomé, Togo, and Yaoundé, Cameroon, where populations are expected to double in 20 years. He observed construction strategies that reflected coherent individual and collective approaches to planning, although they lay outside existing legal frameworks. Kemajou gives proposals for incorporating such an approach to construction, parting ways with urban planning patterned on European cities, which is unsuitable for these countries.
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Interdisciplinary research is one of our school’s core values. This tool lets you visualize potential and effective affinities among our research, groups, laboratories and individual researchers within the labs.