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Course presentation and educational aims


Academic Year



Advances In Modelling, Health-Monitoring, Infrastructures, Geomatics, Geotechnics, Hazards, Engineering Structures, Transportation (AIM HIGHEST)


Structural And Geotechnical Engineering  

Infrastructure, Geomatics and Transport Engineering



Associated Universities







Antonina Pirrotta


Anna Granà

Research visits abroad

6 months

Overall number of grants


Services for PhD Students

Home page Dept. of Engineering

The PhD in Advances In Modeling, Health-Monitoring, Infrastructures, Geomatics, Geotechnics, Hazards, Structural Engineering, and Transportation (AIM HIGHEST) offered at the University of Palermo is a multidisciplinary program designed to address some of the most pressing problems of our time related to the world of engineering.

AIM HIGHEST covers a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines such as Structural Engineering, Geotechnical Engineering, Transport and Infrastructure, Geomatics, Risk Analysis and Health-monitoring.

Thanks to this diverse offering, doctoral students are able to combine disciplines in a creative and original way. In fact, we believe that researchers of the future, in addition to having a deep knowledge of their own field, will have to be increasingly able to absorb and combine the specialized knowledge of other disciplines. This challenge is addressed by our program through constructive interactions and an effective synthesis between science and engineering.

The research which will be produced bydoctoral students participating in our program takes advantage of the possibility of combining innovative experiments, new theories and advanced simulation methods.

This PhD offer is spread over two curricula: Structural and Geotechnical Engineering; and Road Infrastructure Engineering, Geomatics, and Transport. The curriculum in the Structural and Geotechnical Engineering programmeaims to train researchers and highly qualified professionals who have the ability to identify, formulate and solve complex engineering problems related to the world of construction while considering structures’ interactions with the subsoil. The subjects of the curriculum are closely linked to the research conducted by highly qualified professors and their research teams in each specific field; some relevant fields are: computational mechanics, the dynamics of structures, geomechanics, the thermo-hydro-mechanical behavior of geomaterials, the mitigation of seismic risk, landslide etc., concrete constructions. The curriculum aims to train high-level figures who know how to manage new technologies and innovation in the construction field.

The studies will allow the training of both international researchers and technicians who know how to deal with the design of complex structures. The educational objectives of the PhD course in Civil, Environmental and Materials Engineering is divided in to the two aforementioned courses:


The structural engineering and geotechnical curriculum aims to provide doctoral students with the technical-scientific skills typical of the expected research topics with the interest of forming high-level figures who can enter the international technical-scientific debate and know how to manage new technologies and innovation in the construction field. Therefore, in addition to providing the traditional skills of designing and calculating structural bodies, the curriculum promotes research in highly innovative fields with the conviction that research products can be used for different types of applications. PhD students, with a strong physical-mathematical preparation in the initial phase, will be led along a path of learning numerical simulation techniques and experimental strategies on site and in the laboratory on materials and structures. The doctoral programme will train both researchers and scholars of international repute as well as designers and technicians who know how to deal with the realization of complex structures. In particular, the professors belonging to this curriculum come from various disciplines namely:ICAR07, ICAR08, ICAR09, and develop the following research topics:


The research carried out by the Department of Engineering’s Geotechnical Engineering group focuses on two main strands. 1) Basic research, concerning the mechanical behavior of sands, clays (both saturated and unsaturated), and soft rocks such as limestone and chalks. It concerns in particular the theoretical and experimental study of the factors that determine the mechanical behavior of the volume element of the soil when subjected to changes in the boundary conditions (changes in geometry, loads, interstitial pressures). 2) Applied research concerning the mechanical behavior of geotechnical systems with particular regard to their stability, durability and sustainability. The qualifying elements of the research developed, since the establishment of the Department of Engineering, are those concerning:

- Mechanical behavior of sands, and in particular of those consisting of fragile grains and up to very high pressures (of the order of 100 MPa), in oedometers, instrumented with strain gauges for measuring horizontal tensions and relative study of the evolution of the composition particle size.

- Analysis of the mechanical behavior of unsaturated compacted clays when subjected to cyclic suction variations, with imbibition and drying cycles; dependence of the cut resistance of unsaturated compacted clays from sucking; retention curves of compacted clays in very long suction intervals; evolution of the microstructure of unsaturated flake clays as the load history changes due to the constant suction loading and unloading cycles or cyclic variations of constant load suction. These researches are aimed at the study of microstructural factors and retention properties on the mechanical behavior of unsaturated compacted flake clays used as materials for the construction of embankments or of the sealing core of earth dams.

- Retention and microstructure characteristics of lime stabilized clays, as the lime content and maturation time vary, evolution over time of the mechanical characteristics of lime stabilized clays.

- Experimental study of the design of the mixture for NFC (concrete without fine fraction) for the formation of deep draining trenches (with the function of stability, drainage, filter, durability).

- Innovative investigation methods for the zoning of stone clusters with different levels of alteration.

- Properties of soft rocks typical to Sicily and their correlation with the texture, the oriented structure of the clusters and with the degree of alteration.

- Study by laboratory testing of the speed of the dissolution of the chalks and its dependence on the speed of the flowing water on the surface of the plaster.

- Effects of dissolution on the stability of the bank of an artificial lake. The "applied" research is aimed at assessing landslide hazard and landslide risk management and, therefore, at the modern and rational management of the territory. The research carried out has produced highimpact publications, some of which have been published in internationally renowned journals, and has resulted in the financing of national projects.


Dynamic analysis and monitoring.

The analysis of the dynamic behavior of the structures is very important since the most severe natural events (earthquake and wind) are phenomena that induce dynamic stresses on the structures that can be characterized only through an adequate monitoring project.

From the results of these investigations it is possible to derive fundamental information for the structural engineer who, through increasingly advanced mathematical models and calculation techniques, can provide indications on the useful life conditions of the structure and on any interventions to be carried out.

From what has been said above, the importance of dynamic analysis of structures is evident, particularly in the field of safeguarding monumental assets and the architectural and cultural heritage of which the Sicilian territory is particularly rich. Furthermore, it is important to consider structural monitoring with non-destructive techniques whereby it is possible to detect the presence of micro or macro-fractures in solids and monitor their propagation through the use of non-destructive techniques such as the Acoustic Emissions method (passive method) and the ultrasound method (active method). Multi-scale analysis with applications to periodic structures. Development of multi-scale systems for the computational analysis of structures made up of heterogeneous material in which a representative volume element of a periodic type can be identified. Multi-scale analyses contribute to a reduction in the time of structural calculation through a separation of the scales of interest. In the analyses we distinguish a macroscopic scale (dimensions of the structure, which is considered as a homogeneous continuum) and a mesoscopic scale (dimensions of the constituents, which are modeled individually).

Tissue biomechanics and mechanobiology

The research activity in this area was aimed at the determination of physical-mathematical models capable ofdescribing the behavior of biological tissues and cellular aggregates present in the parenchyma of more complex organs. In this regard, predictive models of the hereditary mechanical behavior of collagen tissues, more or less mineralized, and of muscle tissues have been developed through applications of fractional differential calculus.

The study of cell aggregates, which are involved in the parenchyma of more complex organs was conducted by using fractal geometry to determine the mechanical characteristics of the aggregate. Dynamic predictive models of the hereditary behavior of cellular and nuclear lipid membranes based on experimental evidence that show the presence of marked inheritance of the membrane response orthogonally to the membrane plane are also being studied. In the field of mechanobiology, a predictive model of mediated endocytosis times was developed based on the fractional differential calculation for the description of the motion of the membrane receptors towards the corresponding ligands.

Stochastic differential calculus

In Structural Engineering most of the dynamic actions on structures are random processes also called stochastic processes; earthquakes, gusts of wind and wave motion belong to this category. The structural response to these actions is also a random process. It must therefore be characterized "probabilistically" through the tools of stochastic differential calculus.

Despite the wide range of cases in which external stresses can be characterized as normal Gaussian processes, sometimes, in order to be more responsive to physical reality, they must be considered non-Gaussian, non-normal processes. In the context of the study of linear and non-linear systems stimulated by normal and / or non-normal white noises, innovative methods are proposed for the solution of the Fokker-Planck or Kolmogorov-Feller differential equations to describe the system in terms of a displacement probability density function.

Fractional calculation in the study of continuous beams with viscoelastic behavior

In recent years, modern production techniques have made it possible to obtain innovative structural materials with considerably higher mechanical characteristics than the classic materials generally used in structures, for example polymeric materials, nanocomposites, bio-inspired fabrics, composite sandwiches, multiphase materials, etc. A peculiar characteristic of these innovative materials, which distinguishes them from classic materials, is linked to the fact that they do not have a perfectly elastic behavior. In fact, these materials show marked phenomena that differ over time due to their viscoelastic nature. To adequately characterize the viscoelastic behavior, it is necessary to consider constitutive bonds in which the state of tension is linked to the fractional derivative, of order a, with respect to the time of the deformations, simulating an interpolating behavior between the two elastic and viscous limit cases, as a varies between 0 and 1, returning the perfectly elastic case when a = 0 and perfectly viscous when a = 1. The latter type of model, called the fractional viscoelastic model, effectively simulates the real mechanical behavior of materials, representing the most valid innovative model in the study of the structural response of continuous systems.

Vibration control

The trend towards the use of materials with better mechanical strength characteristics, together with the use of the limit state calculation method, leads to the creation of increasingly slender and deformable structures for which, therefore, the reduction of vibrations is certainly a important challenge. One of the main objectives of researchers and designers, in the field of structural engineering, is, therefore, the study ofthe design of innovative devices that induce a reduction in structural vibrations due to the effect of dynamic loads such as wind or earthquakes.

Computational mechanics

Use of the Contour Element Method, in its symmetric formulation. Furthermore, a calculation code has been prepared, called Karnak.sGbem and which is being continuously updated, in order to be able to perform numerical simulations in the various fields of mechanics:

Substructure approach;

Evaluation of energy in a subspace.

Fracture of fragile materials;

Mechanics of cohesive fracture in materials which can be charachterised as almost brittle;

Limit and shakedown analysis;

Incremental elasto-plastic analysis associated with the contact-detachment problem;

Analysis of solids sheared and twisted with the LEM (line elementless method)

The problem of shear and torsion solids is solved by calculating line integrals, without resorting to the need to discretize neither the domain nor the section outline. The method is "robust" in the sense that it returns the exact solution for those sections where an exact solution exists.

Mechanics of coupled problems: Thermoelasticity and poroelasticity.

Theories concerning the transport of energy and viscous fluids have been developed which correspond, at the macroscale, to transport laws in terms of fractional differential equations. In this regard, physical problems of mass transport and / or thermal energy in porous media with degradation of the geometric and mechanical properties that correspond to flow laws with time decay in the class of power laws have been developed. A similar result has been obtained considering the flow of energy and / or mass through a porous medium with fractal geometry which corresponds to a temporal variation of the outgoing flow with a real exponent power law linked to the fractal dimension of the porous medium. The fractional transport relationship was then considered in single-dimensional thermoelastic and poroelastic multi-field mechanical problems.

Mesomodelling of structures made of heterogeneous materials.

Development of original interface and interphase models for carrying out finite element numerical analyses with applications to adhesive / cohesive joints of quasi-brittle materials. Particular importance is given to the analyses aimed at structures made up of heterogeneous materials such as walls and composite materials.


Research activity in the field of nanomechanics applied to nanotubes, nanostructures, nanotubes and bio-inspired materials concerns the mechanics of hierarchical materials in terms of determining the elastic characteristics and breaking stresses. The methodologies used for the study of these problems make use of the mechanical theory of non-locality, developed at the Department of Engineering which allowsthe long-range intermolecular actions present at the nanometric scales to be described by means of integra-differential continuous field equations. The studies conducted have concerned continuity, static, dynamic, wave propagation, balance stability and damped vibrations at the nanoscale. Problems of homogenization of nanocomposites with matrices and inclusions with viscoelastic characteristics are also being studied.

Structural optimization

Structural optimization represents a relatively recent field of research which, in recent decades, has undergone important advances both from the theoretical profile of formulations and from the application of computational techniques. Furthermore, it finds wide application and represents a reliable reference in the professional engineering field. The formulations produced and the relative numerical approaches allow optimal designs of simple and complex structures with both elastic and elastoplastic behavior subject to static or dynamic loads or, again, to suitable combinations of them to be obtained. Particular attention is paid to the case of seismic loads and recent studies allow us to take into account their random nature. The particularly recent case of seismically isolated structures was also covered.

Hereditary properties of materials

The research activity relating to the identification of the hereditary properties of materials was developed with the aim of providing a physical model corresponding to the relaxation law with the power law observed in almost all materials. In this regard, a mechanical model has been developed which exactly corresponds to the laws of creep and relaxation power and which distinguishes viscoelastic and elasto-viscous materials according to the prevalence of the elastic and viscous phases. This division corresponds to a separation of the order of derivation as less than or greater than 0.5, respectively. The division between the phases has also made it possible to uniquely calculate the free energy stored in the material and the correspondence with the Stavermann-Schwarz free energy obtained by measures on the relaxation law has recently been identified. In this context, the form of free energy corresponding to non-linear deformation measurements was also identified using logarithmic deformation


The research developed by the Department of Engineering’s Construction Technical Area is in line with the needs of the degree courses in Civil, Environmental, Construction-Architecture Engineering.

The didactic and research activities carried out in the areas characterizing the S.S.D. ICAR / 09, have been addressed to the problems of verification and design of buildings with reinforced concrete structures, masonry, steel, mixed steel-concrete.

The research conducted in this area concerns both structures of ordinary and specialist buildings, such as bridges and monumental buildings.

The survey methodologies include: analytical approaches, mainly dedicated to the description of local phenomena that concern the constituent bonds of the materials, the behavior of the sections, the resistant mechanisms; numerical analyzes, based on models, defined on the basis of theoretical formulations and aimed at describing the behavior of the structural elements and / or structures as a whole; experimentation on large-scale samples and prototypes, to be used for the calibration of numerical models and the verification of their reliability.

A fundamental support for research is therefore offered by the activity carried out in the "Materials and Structures Laboratory" of the Department of Engineering, which, in addition to ordinary measuring instruments and load application devices, has contrast systems of high rigidity and strength, and of machines that allow the execution of tests in force control or displacement / deformation, in monotonic or cyclical conditions.

The most recent research topics, where experimentation has a fundamental role, concern the structural use of innovative materials such as glass, fibers for reinforcing cement matrices, fiber fabrics for the confinement of structural elements in reinforced concrete or masonry.

A common denominator in most of the topics dealt with is the reference to buildings subjected to seismic actions, both in relation to the design of new buildings, and with regard to the vulnerability of existing buildings and to improvements and adjustments which could be made to those structures at greatest risk.

In this field, particularly current and significant socio-economic impacts for the related risk prevention and restoration of the existing building heritage, research conducted on the basis of agreements signed with the Department of Civil Protection and coordinated nationally with research groups from other universities. Significant contributions to external organizations are provided through agreements with different agencies, mainly in the Sicilian Territory, usually concerning structural diagnostics problems or recovery / consolidation projects, and participation in the organization and performance of University Masters and professional updating courses. Consequently, the development of a large number of research projects have been undertaken, the results of which have been published in prestigious internationally renowned journals, as well as being financed in numerous competitive tenders, and the realization of significant international cooperation activities .The Structures Area intends to proceed along the path taken, which will allow further improvement of the performances achieved so far, alligned with the University Strategic Plan.


The curriculum aims to train highly qualified researchers and professionals who are able to:

• address and solve problems related to the design, construction, maintenance and management of road and railway infrastructures;

• use criteria related to safety, functionality, socio-economic and environmental impact in the design and operation of road and railway infrastructures;

• recognize the basic problems of the transport system in the mutual influence between supply and demand;

• know how to acquire, process, analyze, visualize and manage territorial information, also through remote sensing techniques and territorial information systems;

• manage projects and programs of operation, maintenance, renewal, functional requalification, divestment of the relevant infrastructures  

In relation to the aforementioned objectives, the Curriculum aims to specialize the research topics offered to students according to priority objectives, consistent with the most advanced international research areas in the sector:

• the first, aiming to train experts capable of dealing with traffic safety problems related to the continuous increase in the demand for mobility in our country;

• the second aiming to train experts capable of dealing, in an innovative way, with the study of road materials, for the road structureand pavement, with a specific specialization in the themes of environmental recovery of waste and industrial production waste, in light of the environmental sensitivity that guides many international research efforts today;

• the third, aiming to train experts capable of tackling, in an innovative way, the exquisitely technical knots that lie ahead of the project, the construction and maintenance of a railway, even in areas with high population density, with specific attention to environmental sustainability issues and the reuse of waste materials;

• the fourth, aiming to train experts capable of planning and managing interventions, even complex ones, on urban road spaces and in particular at intersections, taking into account the impact on circulation and safety of engineering choices at the different management levels of the infrastructure;

• the fifth, aiming to train experts in freight and people logistics, perfecting innovative ICT support systems (Information and Communication Technologies) and, specifically, the Intelligent Transport Systems for the transport logistics sector;

• the sixth, aiming to train experts capable of analyzing and managing territorial information through innovative tools and methods of relief, mobile detection systems, techniques for monitoring the territory and remote sensing.

The innovative features of the proposed curricula largely derive from the multidisciplinary perspective underlying the training project and from the opening of the Doctoral program to a plurality of diversified specialist skills. This corresponds to a need, expected to increase in the coming years, connected to the implementation of recent legislative provisions and guidelines, in the local and national context. These are very topical issues, which are located both in the field of basic research and applied research and of which the scientific and industrial community of the sector recognizes the strategic importance for technological advancement.

University of Palermo

PhD course

Advances In Modeling, Health-Monitoring, Infrastructures, Geomatics, Geotechnics, Hazards, Engineering Structures, Transportation (AIM HIGHEST)

Formulation of the Didactic Structure of the Doctoral Course


The PhD course last three years, corresponding to 180 ECTS in total (research and training activities), students must obtain at least 18 ECTS by participating in training activities aimed at their professional development.

These credits in training activities can be accrued both by attending courses, and through participation in seminar activities, workshops, internships, laboratories, study days and activities similar to the previous ones.

Participation in II level courses provided by the CdS must be agreed with the Tutors and the College in order to integrate, where necessary, the training of the student. Any III level courses offered by our or another University (Italian or European) are to be identified according to the student's training needs.

The CFU in training activities must however be accrued according to the following scheme:




I-II year

Institutional courses of the University of Palermo or other national and international universities, according to the student's training needs.


I-III year

Seminars, stages, workshops, thematic courses, etc. (III level)


 * 1 ECTS equals 7 hours of thematic course or seminar activity