Jan. 28, 1999 ROLLA, Mo. -- The bridge of the 21st century won't be made of concrete and steel, but of strong, lightweight materials equipped with electronic and optical sensors that warn engineers of any potential structural problems.
That's the vision of a group of engineering researchers at the University of Missouri-Rolla, who are building such a bridge as part of an innovative teaching and research project funded by the National Science Foundation.
"This bridge will be a demonstration project as well as a working laboratory, so that our students can see how a real, 'smart' composite bridge works," says Dr. Steve E. Watkins, associate professor of electrical engineering at UMR and the principal investigator for the research project.
The project, titled "Advanced Materials for Civil Infrastructure: Multidisciplinary Curriculum Development," is funded through the NSF's Combined Research Curriculum Development program. The three-year project, which began in January, is supported by $400,000 from NSF and $149,000 from UMR.
The professors and students from a variety of engineering disciplines are building a prototype of their bridge on the UMR campus. After testing the prototype, they plan to work with the Missouri Department of Transportation and the Lemay Center for Composite Technology in St. Louis County to design three similar bridges in Wellston, Mo. The Wellston bridges will be used for automotive traffic.
The prototype structure on campus, which is expected to be completed this spring, will replace a wooden bridge located on the UMR Trace just east of the Curtis Laws Wilson Library.
The new bridge will be built of a fiber-reinforced material that is manufactured at the Lemay Center for Composite Technology in St. Louis, a not-for-profit technology-transfer business supported by the Office of Naval Research. The material consists of glass and graphite fibers in a polymer matrix, and is lighter, stronger and more durable than concrete or steel.
The bridge also will be equipped with fiber-optic sensors -- the "smart" part of the structure -- that will allow researchers to monitor how well the material holds up under foot traffic. According to Watkins, the sensors will be wired to UMR's fiber-optic network, giving researchers access to all manner of data about the structure from their desktop computers.
This project is about more than research, however. As part of the NSF program, Watkins and his co-investigators are designing two new interdisciplinary courses to go along with the bridge-building project. The new courses -- Materials and Sensors, to be offered in the fall, and Smart Civil Structures, to be offered next winter -- will be available to students in aerospace engineering, civil engineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.
This approach makes the curriculum truly interdisciplinary, Watkins says.
"Our plan is to really teach interdisciplinary skills and knowledge to the students in these majors," he adds. "We're trying to teach them to work together with people from other disciplines, just as they'll do when they graduate and get jobs in industry."
The students in both courses will also work in teams composed of students from the various fields of study, Watkins says.
Working with Watkins on the project are Dr. D.J. Belarbi, associate professor of civil engineering; Dr. K. Chandrashekhara, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics; Dr. Richard Hall, associate professor of psychology; and Dr. Antonio Nanni, the Vernon and Maralee Jones Professor of civil engineering.
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