Earthquakes and explosions grab the headlines when structures are toppled, but often the Achilles’ heel of engineering is fire.
Fire is the follow-up act in disasters, the coup de grace that buckles steel beams and shatters concrete. Yet in a research world awash in data keeping skyscrapers, bridges and buildings upright and safe in a disaster, fire remains largely unstudied.
On Sunday, June 10, 60 scientists and professionals from around the world, including representatives from the New York Fire Department and the New York City Department of Buildings, will gather at Michigan State University for a workshop on structures and fire sponsored by the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards Technology. The goal: identify the nation’s research and training needs.
On Tuesday, June 12, MSU will unveil the Structural Fire Testing Facility, the first such facility in a U.S. university that can subject beams, columns and slabs to an inferno comparable to a catastrophic blaze – and gather data about the effects of fire on construction materials and structural systems. The facility is essentially an enormous furnace that can generate heat up to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, while monitoring structural performance.
MSU professor Venkatesh Kodur said the ability to perform structural fire testing will be a significant step toward bringing the United States up to speed in integrating fire and structural engineering – a step crucial to homeland security.
“Many recent disasters involving fire have generated lots of high-level reports suggesting that the United States has a significant lack of expertise in the area of structural fire safety,” Kodur said. “In the U.S. we design to protect against fire, but once there is a fire, we have no rational engineering to address it.”
Kodur, professor of civil and environmental engineering, is one of the world’s leading experts on the effects of fire on materials and structural systems like beams, columns and slabs. Often, it’s a field that seems to be moving backward, as many building materials used today are less fire resistant than some of the conventional materials used 50 years ago. Some new types of concrete can explode in extreme temperatures. Some composite materials trade strength and economy for fire resistance. Only research and testing, Kodur said, can reveal structural weaknesses and offer improvements.
In 2001, while working in Canada, Kodur was the only non-U.S. expert at World Trade Center ground zero to do a post-mortem of the structural failure and to participate in generating an extensive report. More recently, he weighed in on the collapse of a highway overpass in Oakland, Calif., following a tanker crash.
In both cases it wasn’t the blast or impact that felled the structures, but fire.
Fire, Kodur said, presents unique challenges. No two fires are alike and there is little in the way of standards for fire design. Blazes can vary depending on location (a first-floor kitchen fire affects structures differently than a basement furnace blaze), and origin (airplane fuel flowing through a building’s interior acts differently than truck fuel exploding beneath a bridge).
“It is so easy to start a fire,” Kodur said. “It’s such an easy threat and structures, like skyscrapers and bridges, are the lifeline for our economy, and we need to know how to protect them. We need to better train our engineers in this area.”
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