ROLLA, Mo. -- The bridge of the 21st century won't be made of concrete andsteel, but of strong, lightweight materials equipped with electronic andoptical sensors that warn engineers of any potential structural problems.
That's the vision of a group of engineering researchers at the University ofMissouri-Rolla, who are building such a bridge as part of an innovativeteaching and research project funded by the National Science Foundation.
"This bridge will be a demonstration project as well as a workinglaboratory, so that our students can see how a real, 'smart' compositebridge works," says Dr. Steve E. Watkins, associate professor of electricalengineering 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'sCombined Research Curriculum Development program. The three-year project,which began in January, is supported by $400,000 from NSF and $149,000 fromUMR.
The professors and students from a variety of engineering disciplines arebuilding a prototype of their bridge on the UMR campus. After testing theprototype, they plan to work with the Missouri Department of Transportationand the Lemay Center for Composite Technology in St. Louis County to designthree similar bridges in Wellston, Mo. The Wellston bridges will be used forautomotive traffic.
The prototype structure on campus, which is expected to be completed thisspring, will replace a wooden bridge located on the UMR Trace just east ofthe Curtis Laws Wilson Library.
The new bridge will be built of a fiber-reinforced material that ismanufactured at the Lemay Center for Composite Technology in St. Louis, anot-for-profit technology-transfer business supported by the Office of NavalResearch. The material consists of glass and graphite fibers in a polymermatrix, 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 thematerial holds up under foot traffic. According to Watkins, the sensors willbe wired to UMR's fiber-optic network, giving researchers access to allmanner of data about the structure from their desktop computers.
This project is about more than research, however. As part of the NSFprogram, Watkins and his co-investigators are designing two newinterdisciplinary courses to go along with the bridge-building project. Thenew courses -- Materials and Sensors, to be offered in the fall, and SmartCivil Structures, to be offered next winter -- will be available to studentsin 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 thestudents in these majors," he adds. "We're trying to teach them to worktogether with people from other disciplines, just as they'll do when theygraduate and get jobs in industry."
The students in both courses will also work in teams composed of studentsfrom the various fields of study, Watkins says.
Working with Watkins on the project are Dr. D.J. Belarbi, associateprofessor of civil engineering; Dr. K. Chandrashekhara, professor ofmechanical and aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics; Dr. RichardHall, associate professor of psychology; and Dr. Antonio Nanni, the Vernonand Maralee Jones Professor of civil engineering.
Materials provided by University Of Missouri-Rolla. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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