With concern growing about the safety of the nation’s bridges and other infrastructure, West Virginia University researchers studying how composite materials can be used to address the issues have received two National Science Foundation grants totaling more than $1 million to support their work.

Composites can enhance the service life of a structure and minimize the cost of field implementation both in terms of real dollars and disruptions to traffic.

The first award provides base funding of $484,999 over a five-year period to support phase two activities at the Center for Integration of Composites into Infrastructure, which is headquartered in the WVU Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

CICI’s mission is to accelerate the adoption of composites – carbon or glass fibers bonded with polymer resins – into infrastructure systems such as bridges and buildings.

The second award, $600,000 over a three-year period, builds on the success of CICI. The center plans to hire an innovative managing director who will be charged with engaging additional government agencies and industry and university partners in its work, providing benefits to all participants.

East Fork Lake Campground Bridge (Photo courtesy WVU Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources)

Concrete, steel and timber are the backbones of the physical infrastructure of our nation. But as public roads, bridges, railways, buildings and other structures age, they are rapidly deteriorating and in need of repair.

One in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient and their average age is 42 years. With more than 200 million trips taken daily across deficient bridges in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, there is significant need for technology that will ease the cost burden and extend the life of these necessary structures.

Composite materials are noncorrosive, more durable and cheaper to install than more traditional methods, making them ideal for not only the construction of new structures, but also for the repair of aging structures.

Hota GangaRao, CICI director and director of WVU’s Constructed Facilities Center the material can be implemented in several ways.

“We can manufacture these composite materials on a high-volume basis and assemble them in the field,” GangaRao said. “We can create Band-Aid type applications of fabric dipped in resin that can be wrapped around a structure. We can also pre-impregnate material with resin so that they are easier to use in the field.”

GangaRao, the Maurice A. and JoAnn Wadsworth distinguished professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, says this technology is already making a difference in West Virginia.

Last year WVU worked with the United States Army Corps of Engineers to rehabilitate East Fork Lake Campground Bridge south of Huntington at one-third of the replacement cost. The 40-year-old bridge had severely corroded piles – long columns driven deep in to the ground – that had weakened the structure.

“Using a combination of composite shells, wraps and self-consolidating concrete, we were able to encase the steel piles to prevent future corrosion while restoring the load-carrying capacity of the bridge,” GangaRao explains.

The work won the USACE Great Lakes and Ohio River Division’s 2014 Engineering Excellence Award and the USACE National Innovation of the Year award for 2014.

“This is just a small – but very significant example – of how repairs can be made at a substantial cost savings while minimizing disruption to the community, improving durability and reducing the need for maintenance,” GangaRao says.

WVU’s leadership in the field of composite materials is being recognized internationally. As part of phase two, CICI has established a joint research and development program with Nanjing Tech University in China, which will include academic programming for both WVU and Chinese students. Under GangaRao’s leadership, WVU is also working on developing an international program for use of composites with partners in Australia, New Zealand, Korea and Japan.

CICI was founded in 2009 at WVU with base funding from the NSF through its Industry/University Cooperative Research Center program. The program provides a base award for administration while university sites generate memberships to support research. CICI is a successful example of how the program can leverage research funding from government and private companies.

WVU is the lead institution in CICI. North Carolina State University and the University of Miami are full U.S. site partners and Nanjing Tech is an international partner. CICI is working on expanding to include the University of Texas at Arlington.

Additionally, the Chinese National Natural Science Foundation is hoping to emulate the NSF I/UCRC model, with Nanjing Tech being the first Chinese university to join an I/UCRC. NSF has provided travel funding to WVU to help Nanjing Tech establish its site.