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Tunnelling pioneer John Bartlett awarded the Sir Frank Whittle Medal

The Royal Academy of Engineering has announced that civil engineering pioneer John Bartlett was presented with the Sir Frank Whittle Medal this week in recognition of his outstanding contributions to tunnel design and construction.

180918 rae 120 john bartlett receives the sir frank whittle medal from dame ann dowling

180918 rae 120 john bartlett receives the sir frank whittle medal from dame ann dowling

Source: Rob Lacey

John Bartlett was presented with the Sir Frank Whittle Medal by Royal Academy president Dame Ann Dowling

The Sir Frank Whittle Medal is awarded to an engineer whose sustained achievements have had a profound impact upon their engineering discipline.

Bartlett designed the UK side of the Channel Tunnel and his work over the last six decades has transformed tunnelling technology with the invention of the bentonite tunnelling machine for work in loose and sandy soils.

Bartlett spent most of his career with consulting engineers Mott Hay and Anderson and worked there from 1957 until his retirement as chairman and senior partner in 1988. He worked on the first Dartford Tunnel, the first tunnelled sections of the Toronto Subway and was the project engineer responsible for London’s Victoria Line. He also had design responsibility for the Channel Tunnel, first as principal designer for the scheme and following the project’s revision in the early 1970s, as principal design consultant for all civil and geotechnical engineering on the UK section.

He was elected a fellow of the Fellowship (now the Royal Academy) of Engineering in 1978 and was a founder member and Chair of the British Tunnelling Society. In 1982 he was elected president of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

On receiving the award, Bartlett said: “Civil Engineering today is a team game. I hope members of my team will enjoy sharing the recognition given by this award. Many thanks to those who put me forward.”

ICE president Lord Robert Mair said: “There can be no doubt that a major revolution in the worldwide tunnelling industry was triggered by John Bartlett’s invention of the bentonite tunnelling machine. It has enabled a rapid increase in tunnel construction around the world, particularly in urban areas, for water supply, sanitation and transport – with remarkable benefit to humanity.”

Bartlett’s bentonite benefits

Boring tunnels in non-cohesive soils – sands, silts, gravels and mixed ground – is difficult and often dangerous task, with the tunnel face needing continuous support and a risk of ground water flooding the works. Tunnelling in such loose soils was possible before the invention of the bentonite tunnelling machine, but the traditional processes used, such as workers digging by hand under compressed air, were extremely hazardous and expensive.

Bartlett’s solution was inspired by a visit to Milan, where he observed how the city’s first metro line had been built using a cut and cover method rather than boring tunnels. The engineers had used bentonite clay to support the trenches while they were being excavated. Bentonite clay is frequently used in construction because- in slurry form it is thixotropic – a thick gel when at rest but a liquid when agitated. Bartlett began developing a new type of tunnelling machine that combined slurry trenches with mechanical digging technology.

The result was the bentonite tunnelling machine, which he patented in 1964. The machine uses pressurised bentonite slurry in a sealed bulkhead behind the cutting face to balance the water pressure in the ground and stabilise the tunnel while supporting rings are installed. The excavated soil is then separated from the slurry, which is recirculated to the cutting face.

Bartlett’s bentonite tunnelling machine became the prototype for a whole new class of slurry tunnelling machines and by the end of the 1970s more than 1,000 had been used worldwide. The machine’s descendants have been used in many major civil engineering projects. They include Ada and Phyllis, the giant boring machines used by Crossrail to construct tunnels between Royal Oak and Farringdon, and Busy Lizzie, which was used to cut the Lee Tunnel, the first section of London’s Thames Tideway super sewer.


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