Researcher Profile: Thomas Petersen

MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub researcher Thomas Petersen
November 30, 2016

Thomas Petersen joined the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub after taking a course instructed by CSHub Faculty Director Franz Josef Ulm that sparked an interest for him in research on materials that have significant real-world application.

“Mechanics is a beautiful subject in that rather simple material models can provide accurate predictions on performance and resistance to stresses,” Thomas said. “The strength of the CSHub lies in its willingness to investigate very applied problems—in my case pavement damage and fracture—at a very fundamental level. Understanding precisely which mechanisms cause the volume changes within concrete and cement structures allows for an informed redesign at both the material and engineering scales.”

Thomas’ work is concerned with understanding the structural failure of concrete pavements—more specifically, connecting internally developing loads to pavement damage.

“Concrete undergoes volume changes both during its early setting period and due to environmental factor such as temperature changes, freezing of water in its pore-space, and chemically induced expansion of constituents (e.g. the ASR),” he explained. “If restrained, shrinkage or expansion of the concrete can cause fracture. Hence, the idea is to investigate precisely how and where these volume changes develop and incorporate them into a model that can predict failure at the observable scale.”

When Thomas isn’t working on figuring out how to make pavements more durable, you might find him out pounding the pavement – a competitive long distance runner, Thomas just completed his fifth marathon.

“I ran as a collegiate athlete at Arizona State University and NC State University, but now run primarily to balance my daily routine,” he said. “I find that sports provide a health outlet for many of the stresses experienced during graduate school. In terms of research, it allows me to step back from the details of my calculations and contemplate the broader questions trying to be answered.”

He attempted his first marathon four years ago. His most recent competition was the New York City Marathon, but he has also run in San Francisco and three times in Boston.

Thomas said he always tries to make the city where he currently lives his home, but said he feels lucky to have the experience of growing up in different countries. His mother is American and his father is German. His family briefly lived in Brazil and South Africa when he was a young child. They then lived in Langenfeld, a small town between Cologne and Düsseldorf, before moving to North Carolina when he was 13. He said he enjoys returning to Germany about once a year to visit friends and family. 

On campus, Thomas is actively involved in the Energy Club at MIT and has helped organize the Clean Energy Prize, the Energy Conference, and last year’s inaugural Energy Hackathon. Through his involvement in the club, he says he has met “many enthusiastic students of diverse backgrounds—both from the Sloan and Science and Engineering campuses—who are interested in better understanding the challenges of providing sustainable energy solutions.” He added, “MIT is a place of much innovation, and it is a fascinating and unique opportunity to learn how policy makers, entrepreneurs, and researchers are adapting their strategies to supply a growing population with diversified, low-carbon energy.”

This cross-disciplinary thinking plays a role in his work with the CSHub, too. “Few research projects offer the ability to investigate a topic as holistically as the CSHub,” he said. “This allows us to ask very basic questions about the physics of cement at the nanoscale and molecular scale --- How do we expect the pressure of freezing water in the gel pore-space to affect the behavior of the cement? What causes the expansive behavior of CSH that comes into contact with aggregate of high silica content? --- and simultaneously assess the impact of these driving forces on their application in the field. In other words, we seek solutions both from the material science and engineering perspectives.”