Protecting the engineering giants of the ocean: 2007 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year

Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2007

Mark Cassidy landscapeMark Cassidy

Mark Cassidy is battling immutable forces of nature – storms, ocean currents and earthquakes – that threaten to topple the giant oil and gas platforms off the North West coast of Australia.

From his geophysics laboratory at the University of Western Australia, he models the way the feet of these giant platforms push into the mud on the ocean floor. And his models work. His advice is sought by the designers and builders of the platforms and his modelling has led to changes to international safety guidelines. The 33 year-old civil engineer is also one of Australia’s youngest professors.

Now Mark is turning to a new challenge.

Oil exploration is heading further offshore into deep ocean. So Mark and his colleagues are investigating how to design and protect pipelines that will carry oil and gas from three kilometres under the sea up the continental shelf to land.

For his leadership in offshore civil engineering, Professor Mark Cassidy receives the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.

As a child Mark Cassidy enjoyed playing and building in the sandpit. Today he’s still playing with sand and mud, but with a more serious intent.

Physics was a passion at school, but Mark wanted to put it to practical use, so he turned to civil engineering at university. A winter holiday job in Norway introduced him to the largest movable objects on Earth – 500 metre tall oil and gas platforms. He was hooked.

For his PhD in the United Kingdom, he studied mobile drilling platforms and how their 20 metre wide ‘spudcan’ feet worked in responding to the stresses and strains placed upon them, deep beneath the ocean’s surface. He developed a mathematical model to predict the stability of the feet, a critical issue as around the world, four to five platforms fail each year. At $250 million each, the failure and replacement of these platforms comes at a great cost.

Mark’s mathematical model worked, and his career path was set.

Today, Mark’s newer, more sophisticated mathematical models take into account the impact of soil and wave mechanics, structural mechanics and more. Scaled-down versions of platforms’ legs and feet are tested using giant centrifuges at his laboratory at the Centre for Offshore Foundation Systems at the University of Western Australia. The centre, which he heads, has grown to be one of three leading centres in the field worldwide.

The immediate beneficiaries are the burgeoning oil and gas industries of Australia’s North-west Shelf.

The industry is now moving further offshore, with the multi-billion dollar Gorgon gas field project leading the way.

“We’re in the right place at the right time,” says Mark.

“The epicentre of the industry is moving from Mexico and the North Sea, to Australia and Asia. And there are new issues to deal with as the oil companies open up new oil fields in the deep ocean.”

“As you go deeper, the costs and the problems spiral,” says Mark.

Mark is heading a new initiative to look at these challenges. He is leading an $11 million CSIRO Flagship cluster that’s bringing six universities together to investigate the challenges of constructing pipelines that will carry oil and gas from depths of three kilometres or more. The pipelines will either rise up to floating platforms far out to sea, or run for some 300 kilometres or more along the seabed and up the cliffs of the continental shelf to land-based terminals.

The pipelines will have to cope with rugged terrain including deep sea cliffs, ocean currents, earthquakes and many other hazards. Mark and his colleagues will assess the hazards, build the scale models and create their mathematical equivalents – sets of numbers that engineers can use to safely design innovative engineering solutions to meet the challenges ahead.


2006           Professor of Civil Engineering, The University of Western Australia

2006           Director of the Centre for Offshore Foundation Systems, The University of Western Australia

2000-05      Professorial Fellow in Research in 2005, senior lecturer for 2004-05, lecturer 2001-03 and research associate in 2000, Centre for Offshore Foundation Systems, The University of Western Australia

2005           Acting deputy director, Centre for Offshore Foundation Systems, The University of Western Australia

2000-05      Key researcher and member of the Management Committee, Centre for Offshore Foundation Systems, The University of Western Australia

1999           Intern for the World Commission on Dams, Cape Town, South Africa

1998           Stipendiary lecturer at Brasenose College, University of Oxford, UK

1995           Engineer with Ove Arup and Partners, Brisbane, Australia


1999           Doctor of Philosophy, University of Oxford

1994           Bachelor of Engineering, 1st Class Honours and University Medal, University of Queensland

Awards and fellowships

2007-10      Cluster leader, CSIRO Wealth from Ocean’s Flagship Cluster on Subsea Pipelines

2006           West Australian Premier’s Prize for Early Career Achievement in Science awarded by the Premier to a West Australian scientist under 35 years who’s research findings are deemed to have had the greatest impact on their field and originally contributed to the scientific knowledge base.

2006-10      Visiting professor, The University of Queensland

2006           Included in list of “Australia’s Most Influential Engineers Top 100” in category of “Top 10 Young Engineers”, Institute of Engineers Australia.

2006           Research Fellowship, International Centre for Geohazards, Norwegian Geotechnical Institute, Oslo, Norway (6 months)

1995           Rhodes Scholarship, Queensland and New College

Academic career

Publication summary

  • 1 Book (ed), 28 referred journal articles, 25 papers in international conference proceedings.
  • New plasticity framework for predicting the load-displacement response of shallow foundations
  • Suite of foundation models for circular footings on sand, offshore pipelines and suction caissons
  • Analytical solutions for bearing capacity of flat circular and conical foundations in sand
  • Recommended stiffness levels to be used in analysis of foundations of offshore ’jack-up’ platforms (included in international design guides SNAME and draft ISO document)
  • Innovative method of evaluating extreme response statistics in offshore storms
  • Analysis procedures incorporating probabilistic modelling in geotechnical risk assessment
  • Novel experimental techniques for application in geotechnical centrifuge
  • Currently supervises two Post-doctoral students, four PhD students and two Honours students
  • Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee, Western Australia (2005-09)
  • Management Committee of the Society of Underwater Technology (Perth Chapter) 2006
  • International Standards Organisation panel (ISO, TC67, SC7, WG7): Panel 4 on assessment of ‘jack-up’ units
  • International Scientific Committee to the International Symposium on Frontiers of Offshore Geotechnics
  • Institute of Engineers Australia (MIEAust)
  • British Geotechnical Association & Australian Geomechanics Society
  • Academic Board of The University of Western Australia (elected 2003, 2005-06)