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Russ College researchers pave way toward technical, human solutions to aging infrastructure

Pete Shooner | Jun 13, 2016
Are we falling apart?

Russ College researchers pave way toward technical, human solutions to aging infrastructure

Pete Shooner | Jun 13, 2016

Take a look at how the Russ College's new Associate Dean for Academics Deb McAvoy and her fellow faculty researchers are ensuring our future infrastructure is safe, efficient, and economical. This article originally appeared in the 2015-16 issue of Ingenuity, the Russ College’s alumni magazine.

On a late-June day 60 years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which pledged $25 billion to construct 41,000 miles of what would become the Interstate Highway System – and the largest public works project in American history at the time.

Eisenhower’s passion for the project can be traced to his participation in the U.S. Army’s first transcontinental convoy from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco in 1919. The trip took the 28-year-old officer and his fellow soldiers two months to complete as they were slowed by cracked bridges, broken equipment, and bogged-down vehicles.

Fast forward to 1991. After 35 years of construction, the original scope of Eisenhower’s project was completed – and the cross-country journey that took the Army convoy two months was cut down to just five days.

Our infrastructure – from our roads and bridges, to our pipelines and electric grids, to our solid waste and water treatment plants – has the power to transform our lives, redefine how our society functions, and raise the scale of what we can accomplish.

But when infrastructure fails, like the 2007 I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis or lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, the consequences can be dire.

Who keeps watch? Every four years, civil engineers from across the country collaborate on the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, which grades the nation’s major infrastructure categories on a simple A to F scale. In 2013, the nation’s overall grade was a “D+,” meaning “poor” or “at risk” – and implying that more headline-making failures might be on the horizon.

At the least, the low grade means that instead of driving economic growth the way a healthy infrastructure should, our aging systems are a drag. In fact, the 2013 Report Card estimated that without a $3.6 trillion investment by 2020 to bring our grade up to a “B,” the poor state of our infrastructure could cost $3.1 trillion in lost GDP and as many as 3.5 million lost jobs.

The solution, according to ASCE President Mark Woodson, starts with a rethinking of public investment priorities, especially when it comes to surface transportation.

“First and foremost, we haven’t changed our funding model in too long, and that’s the federal gas tax and the state gas taxes,” Woodson says. “The federal tax has not changed in 20 plus years, and it did not have a built in inflation factor, so we’re taxing at 1993 dollars.”

Russ College Department of Civil Engineering Chair Deb McAvoy, who was recently elected chair of the ASCE Committee on Education, says the funding that does come in ends up being spread far too thin.

“We just simply don’t have the money to replace everything that needs it. There’s just not enough honestly to go around,” McAvoy says. “Politically, everyone always has something else they’d prefer to lobby for other than infrastructure, so we’re losing those battles in D.C.”

Citing a lack of “political will to make a difference at the federal level,” Woodson says the nation’s engineers must focus on long-term technical solutions to ensure we get as many miles out of any new infrastructure the government is able to invest in.

“We are constantly working for new technologies, and something ASCE is stressing is more sustainable infrastructure and more resilient infrastructure, because we know we have to make things last longer,” Woodson says.

Russ College faculty and graduate student researchers across disciplines are doing just that – developing technologies and discovering information that can not only improve existing infrastructure, but that form the foundation of tomorrow’s roads, bridges, pipelines, and National Airspace System.


Built to last

Russ Professor of Civil Engineering and Director of the Ohio Research Institute for Transportation Research (ORITE) Shad Sargand is developing practical solutions to improve our current transportation infrastructure while ensuring new projects can incorporate the most sustainable materials and designs available.

Sargand’s two recent research awards from the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), totaling more than $750,000, will assess how concrete behaves on the state’s highways and what new designs would be stronger and more economical.

First, Sargand’s team of ORITE researchers and graduate students are analyzing and combining data sets from pavement studies across the state to determine the optimum thickness for long-life concrete pavements, taking into account numerous elements that can change the ideal design.

“What we’re trying to do is optimize the design, because when we’re designing a concrete pavement, we don’t know whether the thickness that we design is the right thickness or not,” Sargand says. “In the past, these designs have been based more on the load, but now because of the technology, we can include environmental effects like temperature that were in the past ignored.”

Sargand and team are also examining sections of Interstates 70, 77, and 90 where an unbonded concrete overlay was used to rehabilitate badly deteriorated concrete pavements. This common technique involves constructing a concrete pavement on top of an existing concrete pavement with a “bondbreaker” material, usually hot mix asphalt, layered in between.

While this method has successfully extended the life of the state’s pavements in most places, some have failed prematurely. ORITE is currently conducting forensic evaluations of these premature failures to determine what caused the damage and if it is reoccurring, how it can be avoided on future projects.

Developing stronger, longer-lasting construction materials and methods becomes even more of a priority when designing bridges – which can span gaps of just a 20 feet to miles across.

Civil Engineering Professor Eric Steinberg specializes in ultra-high performance concrete (UHPC), a concrete-like material that at seven times the strength of traditional concrete behaves more like steel but at a fraction of the cost.

About three years ago, Steinberg had the idea to use UHPC to solve a common problem occurring on adjacent precast prestressed box beam bridges, a popular design for small-to-medium spans where multiple long concrete box beams are placed side-by-side until the needed width is reached.

“Part of the issue with these bridges is the longitudinal joints between the box beams themselves,” Steinberg says. “The state has been using these for 40 plus years, but they’ve usually had problems with those joints cracking and leaking and then causing corrosion of the reinforcement.”

Steinberg’s idea was to use UHPC as the grouting material connecting the box beams, which would not only reduce cracking but also strengthen the entire bridge. Teaming up with Civil Engineering Associate Professor Ken Walsh, Steinberg was able to modify a traditional box beam bridge design to incorporate UHPC with minimal changes, and in 2014, the duo got the chance to put their idea to the test.

The pair, funded by ODOT and the Federal Highway Administration’s Innovative Bridge Research and Deployment Program, coordinated with Fayette County’s Engineer to construct the country’s first adjacent box beam bridge to use UHPC.

Spanning 60 feet across Lees Creek near Washington Court House, Ohio, the bridge is fully equipped with instrumentation so the team can monitor how well the design holds up. Data is still flowing from the bridge’s sensors, but Steinberg says the early results are promising. 

After roads and highways, one of the most ubiquitous elements of our infrastructure is the oil and gas pipeline network that keeps a steady source of energy flowing from production fields to refineries, distribution centers, and homes.

But unlike our roads, where drivers can feel every crack, bump, and pothole, the biggest threat to the integrity of our estimated 2.6 million miles of oil and gas pipeline is hidden. To get the full picture, you have to know what’s going on inside the pipe, where chemicals that are captured with oil and gas at the well mix with small amounts of water to create corrosive liquid and vapor.

 “These pipelines could last forever if they weren’t degrading chemically, which is corrosion,” says Russ Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Srdjan Nesic, director of the Russ College’s Institute for Corrosion and Multiphase Technology (ICMT). “So that’s what we focus on, and that’s why our research is quite central to maintaining and having a high-quality pipeline infrastructure.”

One of the largest facilities of its kind in the world, the ICMT has received more than $30 million in research funding since 2002, almost entirely from private industry. The Institute’s flagship research project is its longstanding Corrosion Center Joint Industry Project (CC-JIP), supported by a consortium comprising 20 of the world’s largest energy companies.

By joining the CC-JIP consortium, energy companies help guide ongoing projects, all of which inform modeling software to predict how corrosion will occur over time, as well as how effective various corrosion inhibitors will be in different environments.

The foundational nature of ICMT’s research, largely supported by a consortium of cooperating private companies, is what sets it apart from other facilities.

“Nobody is going to compete on corrosion. Nobody is going to have less corrosion than the next guy – they all want to have less corrosion. It’s more or less a matter of survival,” Nesic says. “Studying corrosion is a matter of keeping this whole thing alive, because if it falls apart, everybody loses.”

To the skies

Commercial jets might make cruising 30,000 feet in the air look effortless, but pilots and their aircraft are supported by a complex network of infrastructure that enables safe takeoffs, flights, and landings in our increasingly crowded National Airspace System (NAS).

In February, the Avionics Engineering Center signed a $1.6 million, five-year agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Flight Inspection Services to provide technical support to enhance the development, evaluation, and certification of the airspace navigational systems, instrument flight procedures, and avionics equipment.

Center Director Mike DiBenedetto explains that part of the FAA’s thorough testing of equipment includes flight inspections of new installations prior to use in the NAS and periodic inspection of existing equipment. These inspections help ensure that the equipment operates properly before being brought online and that it continues to operate properly during its service lifetime.  

“They’re really in that frontline role of ensuring that this element of the infrastructure is available and suitable for use by the flying public,” DiBenedetto says.

The FAA will rely on the expert research team at the Avionics Engineering Center to help develop the pass/fail parameters for the equipment and instrument procedures being inspected.

“We’ll help them determine the requirements in terms of the assessment, and in terms of what specialized equipment flight inspection aircraft may have to have in order to accomplish those assessments in an airborne environment,” DiBenedetto says.

Even as the NAS moves toward satellite-based navigation, sustaining a reliable ground-based infrastructure remains vital, since GPS signals are susceptible to solar activity as well as jamming or “spoofing.” Through projects like this and others, the researchers in the Avionics Engineering Center are ensuring safer skies for years to come.


The road ahead

McAvoy, a traffic expert who has most recently led ODOT-funded research projects designing and testing wildlife protection methods on the new US 33 Nelsonville Bypass near Athens, paints a bleak picture of our future roadways, if population increases and lack of new investment continue.

“By 2025, they think we’re going to be at a complete standstill because of freight movement,” McAvoy explains. “It’s not necessarily the automobiles, it’s the semi-trucks that are out there trying to move freight from one place to the other, and they’re actually the ones causing the most damage to the roads.”

Unfortunately, the solution isn’t as simple as making the roads and highways larger.

“We don’t have any more capacity. We can’t build any more lanes on freeways. We’ve really squeaked out the last of the capacity on the roadways through technology to improve traffic flow, so the real option is getting people off the road.”

Even though “driverless” cars and computer-assisted driving technology might not reduce the number of cars on the road, these systems theoretically should make more efficient use of the existing space on the roads, since automated vehicles can follow one another more closely and at higher speeds.

While electrical engineers and computer scientists continue to drive driverless technology ahead full steam, one Russ College civil engineering doctoral student is asking a more practical – and more human – question: What happens when that technology fails at 70 miles per hour, or more?

Sarah El-Dabaja, studying under McAvoy’s guidance, is using the College’s immersive driving simulator to test how drivers perform before, during, and after using a fully automated and an assistive system.

“So how is that behavior going to compare to the manual driving, and if you switch back to manual afterwards, how are people going to drive? Are they going to do better or worse than they did driving with the system?” El-Dabaja asks.

Her hypothesis? She thinks performance after using a connected or automated system will be worse because the driver will lose focus or become too dependent on the computer controlling the car.

“There will be some places where the technology won’t be there, in rural areas especially,” El-Dabaja explains. “When it comes to technology, people tend to think that it can do everything for them, and they’ll fall asleep in the driver’s seat, or they think they can’t trust it at all and they’ll never turn it on. We need to find the happy medium in between.”

The human solution

So what does the road ahead hold? Without increased public investment, will the technical engineering breakthroughs ever be realized? 

ASCE President Woodson believes technology – combined with advocacy – is what provides our infrastructure to a sustainable future.

“As you’re talking about students and young people, they’re all going to be challenged to do more with less,” Woodson says. “So as the communities continue to grow, we have to remember that we have limited resources, and we’re going to have to have much more innovative designs and concepts on how to do things than we’ve had in the past.”

McAvoy agrees that engineering solutions are critical, but she pushes the future engineers in her classroom to see the problems facing our infrastructure as human problems, rather than technical ones.

“We use the Nelsonville Bypass in class quite a bit, because it’s controversial. We have people who live in Nelsonville in the same class as people from Southeast Ohio, and some say, ‘We needed that so we could increase our economy in Southeast Ohio,’ and those from Nelsonville say, “Well, we just lost it,’” McAvoy says. “So having those conversations in the classroom I think really helps make them more well-rounded students – to see the economic, environmental, social, up-to-date technology issues, and put them all together. We’re just trying to produce engineers who consider more than just the engineering solution."