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Posted 04.13.05

Composite Reinforcement System Could Build Better Bridges, Researchers Say

Newly Developed Composite Reinforcement System Could Replace Steel, Save Money on Maintenance

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Steel bridges play a vital role in the U.S. transportation system, allowing people and goods to move around each state in a safe and efficient manner. In Missouri, the average age of a bridge is 49 years. Bridges across the state are showing signs of deterioration and often experience more stress and higher traffic volumes than they were designed to handle. University of Missouri-Columbia researchers are developing a new composite reinforcement system, stronger and lighter than steel, which will significantly cut down on the maintenance and safety concerns of these bridges.

"With the increasing number of vehicles on the road, these older bridges, which were not designed to handle this much traffic, are getting punished more than ever," said Vellore Gopalaratnam, professor of civil and environmental engineering at MU. "We believe our steel-free hybrid reinforcement system will benefit all bridges throughout the country."

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Gopalaratnam, along with MU graduate assistant Kenny DeYoung and undergraduate honor scholar Sarah Craig, works with the University of Missouri-Rolla (UMR) and the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT) on the project, which started two years ago. The MU team, working in a test site the size of a football field, fabricated several concrete bridge deck slabs that are not reinforced by steel, but by a composite that consists of a mixture of carbon, glass and polypropylene fibers.

Using a machine that pounds into the slab, simulating traffic pressure, the team tests for stresses and cracks in the composite material and concrete, determining how much pressure the new bridge deck systems will deflect before they fail. Tests show that the composite reinforcement bars are five times stronger than the steel currently used. The next step will be to test these composites on a Missouri bridge within the next several months.

Gopalaratnam believes this is a big first step toward the development of a "smart bridge", which would have optical sensors embedded into the composite fibers to alert the transportation department of a need for maintenance.

Currently, Gopalaratnam and his team are writing a report to submit to MODOT on their progress and will seek additional funding from the National Science Foundation and MODOT in the coming months. The Innovative Bridge Research Construction Program of the U.S. Federal Highway Administration recently funded the MU-UMR-MODOT team for field implementation of this technology.



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