On the Mines campus, Tissa Illangasekare is known as the friendly, upbeat civil and environmental engineering professor who transformed the old Volk Gymnasium swimming pool into a state-of-the-art soil and climate wind tunnel. It’s a snaking, wooden test facility, where researchers study the transport of water from soil into the atmosphere and other important problems such as detection of buried land mines and leakage from sequestrated CO2.

Tissa Illangasekare

Tissa Illangasekare in the coupled soil and climate wind tunnel at Mines

But beyond campus, even across the world, Illangasekare is known for transforming the field of hydrology. That’s why in April of this year he received the Henry Darcy Medal from the European Geosciences Union, one of the highest honors of the field. He accepted the medal at the EGU General Assembly in Vienna, Austria, where he delivered the lecture, “Let us Keep Observing and Play in Sand Boxes.”

“I consider it a tremendous honor and achievement to receive this medal named after Henry Darcy, the renowned 19th century scientist, groundwater hydrologist and civil engineer,” says Illangasekare. “This medal not only recognizes my contributions to hydrological sciences and water resources engineering, which was only possible with the help of many of my outstanding students, colleagues and collaborators in the U.S. and around the world, but also service to the hydrological community and society in general.”

The EGU award announcement states, ‘Illangasekare is the best experimentalist in the area. He is a leading expert in the integration of innovative experimental work with sound theoretical research. His work has continuously improved fundamental understanding of behavior and fate of non-aqueous phase liquids [NAPL] in heterogeneous porous media. Illangasekare has made pioneering contributions to quantifying mass transfer from entrapped NAPL sources of contamination to groundwater.’

These contributions not only improved science, but also had a direct impact on the lives of many people. In the wake of the Asian tsunami in 2004, Illangasekare raised funds to clean up wells and set up emergency sanitation systems in the affected areas. He also directed a National Science Foundation-funded team of experts who traveled to Sri Lanka to identify groundwater supply problems and support the cleanup of wells.

At Mines, Illangasekare holds the AMAX Distinguished Chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering and is the founding director of the Center for Experimental Study of Subsurface Environmental Processes.

This is an edited version of an article first printed in Energy and the Earth 2012. More articles from that publication can be found at newsroom.mines.edu.