“We have a duty to Switzerland, and to the planet”

Lyesse Laloui in the Laboratory of Soil Mechanics. © Alain Herzog

Lyesse Laloui in the Laboratory of Soil Mechanics. © Alain Herzog

Professor Lyesse Laloui, who heads the Laboratory of Soil Mechanics (LMS) in EPFL’s Civil Engineering Section, has been elected to the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences. The accolade, announced in January this year, recognizes Prof. Laloui’s distinguished contribution to geomechanics – as an engineer, polymath and champion of cross-disciplinary approaches in fields ranging from the environment and renewable energy to carbon storage.

Anyone who visits the second floor of EPFL’s Civil Engineering building will find it hard to miss the Laboratory of Soil Mechanics (LMS) “Prof. Laloui’s Team” poster. The 29 cheerful faces are all members of the team led by lab director and geomechanics expert Lyesse Laloui, whose hectic schedule – juggling several cross-disciplinary projects at once – means he relies on his passionate and hard-working colleagues to pick up the slack. 

Prof. Laloui is the founder and co-manager of several startups, the author of around a dozen books and the head of EPFL’s Civil Engineering Section. And, until recently, he was a professor at two universities in the United States and China. With so much on his plate, it’s hard to imagine how he copes with it all. “There’s no substitute for hard work,” he says with a smile. “It’s also important to surround yourself with the right people – who care as much as you do. I really appreciate the support I get from my colleagues. I couldn’t do it alone.”

Ahead of his time

Prof. Laloui, who hails from Skikda in Algeria, arrived in Switzerland in 1994 after completing a PhD in soil mechanics at École Centrale Paris. He’s remained in the Lake Geneva region ever since. In 2006, he secured a professorship at EPFL, going on to forge his own research interests in a wide variety of disciplines. He soon earned a reputation for being ahead of his time – and for being a workaholic. “He’s the hardest-working person I know,” says Dr. Alessio Ferrari, a research associate at the LMS who’s worked alongside Prof. Laloui for over 10 years. “He has this incredible ability to take on more and more. The things he talks about represent the future of soil mechanics. Some of the ideas and concepts are at the forefront of our discipline today – I heard him mention them a decade ago when I arrived at EPFL.”

Lyesse Laloui on EPFL's campus © ZUZANNA ADAMCZEWSKA-BOLLE

While studying for his PhD in Paris, Lyesse Laloui was among the first researchers to float the idea of burying nuclear waste. He’s also carried out ground-breaking research into underground carbon storage – a method that involves capturing human-induced carbon emissions and trapping the greenhouse gas below ground in hermetically sealed rock formations. And along with his research group, he’s working on other cross-disciplinary projects including geothermal power and energy geostructures, which can be used to design energy-self-sufficient buildings. 

Working across disciplines

“We have a duty to Switzerland, and to the planet,” says Lyesse Laloui, who has a deep concern for environmental issues. Pollution prevention and management technology is another area of interest. “We’ve developed a biocement that’s as strong and hard-wearing as conventional cement,” he explains. “Except it’s made using bacteria, doesn’t produce any CO2 emissions, and sets quickly, so it’s more efficient.” Medusoil, the EPFL startup he founded to manufacture the new material, has just raised CHF 2 million to support its business development. The engineer has also turned his talents to natural hazards such as landslides, debris flows and slope stability, all of which are prominent concerns in Switzerland. “When it comes to soil mechanics, he’s a global trend-setter – and I’m not just saying that because I’m a colleague of his!” says Alessio Ferrari, jokingly.

In January of this year, Lyesse Laloui was elected to the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences – a prestigious accolade that recognizes his contribution across disciplines, including some far removed from civil engineering. “I was humbled and honored when I heard the news,” he says. “I’m looking forward to playing my part in the Academy’s work and using science as a way to solve some of the biggest issues facing society today. I’m also eager to inspire a passion for science and engineering in the next generation.” He believes more needs to be done to reach out to Swiss high-school students – especially girls who, in his words, are “among the best, if not the very best.” As he explains: “What really matters to me is getting to the root of the problem. For instance, some children, especially those from low-income households, have never even heard or thought about a career in engineering.”

“A consummate professional and a people person”

Ideas aren’t the only thing that Lyesse Laloui gets excited about. Before the pandemic, he spent much of his time traveling to work on projects and attend conferences. “He was always on the move,” says Dr. Eleni Stavropoulou, one of his postdoctoral researchers. “He’d be in the US one day and China the next! Sometimes we’d get emails from him at 4 o’clock in the morning, sent from some far-flung part of the globe.” Stavropoulou, who joined Prof. Laloui’s team a year ago, is impressed by his devotion to his team – a team that, unlike most in the field of civil engineering, is split almost evenly between women and men. “He’s a consummate professional, but he’s also a people person,” she explains. “Being part of his team is great for your career development. He’s always suggesting different options.” 

The EPFL’s professor is a renowned scientist with a passion for complex equations who spends much of his time looking businesslike in a suit. But, according to his colleagues, his outward appearance belies his true personality: someone who’s personable and takes time to get to know his team-members outside of work – at hockey matches or visiting nature reserves in China. With two children and busy work schedule, he has little time for himself. “I enjoy skiing or spending time by the sea when I can. But with work and family commitments, downtime is a scarce commodity. I’m excited about my work. I feel lucky to be doing something I love. There’s never a moment of boredom. And I get to devote the rest of my time to my family,” he says with a broad smile, revealing at least part of the reason for his boundless energy. 

Source: People