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Civil engineering prof shares earthquake tech at Science Café

Alexis Eichelberger | Mar 26, 2018
Ken Walsh

Civil engineering prof shares earthquake tech at Science Café

Alexis Eichelberger | Mar 26, 2018

An Ohio University civil engineering professor enlisted the help of four scale models, several photos and graphs, and three audience volunteers to shake up his Science Café lecture Wednesday evening.

Associate Professor Ken Walsh’s presentation, “Preparing for the Big One: Protecting Critical Infrastructure,” showed attendees who gathered at the Front Room campus coffeehouse how structural engineers protect buildings, bridges and other structures from damage and collapse caused by earthquakes.

The last major earthquake to rock the United States, Walsh explained, happened in 1994 near Los Angeles, California. One of the costliest natural disasters to ever hit the U.S., it caused billions of dollars in damage and nearly 60 fatalities.

Walsh said that because our country’s last major quake was more than 20 years ago, we might be overdue for another.

“We can have another large earthquake at any time,” he said.

That’s where structural engineers come in. Researchers like Walsh work to develop seismic protective systems, which are designed to limit damage caused by the acceleration of movement that results from earthquakes and the deformation of the structures themselves.

Walsh gave a firsthand look at current and proposed seismic protective mechanisms. Demonstrating how a lateral bracing system may be used to strengthen buildings, he explained that it’s still not enough to stop both deformation and acceleration. To truly limit earthquake damage, a structure also needs energy dissipation devices such as a fluid viscous damper, which is commonly used on bridges and multi-story buildings. New developments include the resettable stiffness damper, which his team is working to improve by simplifying its working process to prevent technical failures. They’re replacing the electrical components with a simple mechanism that doesn’t compromise the damper’s energy dissipation capacity -- without a power requirement to operate, the improved damper will be more reliable during an earthquake. Walsh demonstrated the technology with a model of the device, noting that they’re ready to scale the work up to a full-sized system and continue testing.

Grace Sallar, a civil engineering Ph.D. candidate, worked on Walsh’s team and assisted him during the demo. She said it has been indescribable to see her work come to life and move into further stages of development, bringing it another step closer to being used on real structures.

“I can’t express how I feel,” she said.  “It makes me really proud of all the work we’re doing, because we’re trying to make a difference in the world,” she said. “Getting people to understand what we did in the simplest forms is amazing.”