Home foundations and frames built of a lightweight composite material that may bend - but won’t break - in a hurricane and can simply float on the rising tide of a storm’s coastal surge? Sounds too Sci-Fi? Maybe like something from the distant future?
Well, the technology is closer than you think. A professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) is set for six months of overseas research aimed at making it a reality, now.
UAB Associate Professor of Engineering Nasim Uddin, Ph.D., and his collaborators are behind the innovative work. Beginning Nov. 22, Uddin will spend six months in Bangladesh as a visiting lecturer and researcher at the BRAC University. Uddin will work to strengthen the university’s post graduate-program in disaster mitigation while he furthers his ongoing research into natural fiber-based composite technologies for low-cost residential coastal housing, engineered to withstand hurricane strength wind and storm surge damage. The trip is funded by a Fulbright Scholarship grant and is an extension of more than six years worth of UAB based research funded by more than $1 million in National Science Foundation grants.
“Coastal people everywhere face serious threats, but imagine if we can build a home that would still be there after the storm,” Uddin said.
While in Bangladesh, Uddin will work with local educators and researchers to study the feasibility, reliability and livability of low cost coastal housing designed to endure hurricanes using environmentally friendly composite building technology. The technology weaves fibers from the jute tree, one of Bangladesh’s most common and thriving plants, with plastics to form an ultra-strong building material. Uddin’s ongoing research with co-principal investigators Professors Uday Vaidya, Ph.D., and Fouad Fouad, Ph.D., has focused on a similar composite material, but one that relies on glass fibers rather than natural tree fibers.
“The idea in Bangladesh is to find what we can do to design a more green material that is locally available at a substantially lower cost when compared to alternative building materials, and that is substantially stronger than the homes and structures currently being built along the coastline,” Uddin said. “We will learn if these jute fiber homes are livable, and we’ll try to resolve any architectural issues, getting a step closer to the real implementation or construction of such homes for people battered by centuries of deadly storms.”
Uddin said the technology is light weight and also could help the structures survive hurricane storm surge and the resulting flooding, by essentially allowing the buildings to float on the rising tide once uplift pressures from climbing water levels force the structures free from their foundations.
Uddin said that while this next phase of his fiber-composite research is taking place overseas, the technology, if it proves viable, will have tangible benefits for the coastal regions of United States, including parts of Alabama.
“The potential payoff of this program could be the rapid insertion of the tree-fiber technology into the rebuilding and future construction of homes in the Gulf Coast states, especially in flood and storm prone areas like Mobile and New Orleans,” Uddin said.
Uddin said that Bangladesh is the ideal country for his research. The Asian nation is one of the most disaster prone and densely populated in the world, offering a unique opportunity to better understand the potential real-world applications of the tree-fiber composite technology in construction. Also, he stressed that the BRAC University he will partner with is a part of one of the world’s largest non-governmental development organizations with the established network and infrastructure needed to implement the fiber-technology program at the grass roots level.
“This is a poor country with an extremely poor coastal community that is completely devastated by these storms,” Uddin said. “A single storm can kill millions. So if our technology can be applied there successfully, you can see how many lives it could save in U.S. cities or anywhere else.”
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