UT Arlington civil engineer lands NSF grant to help earthquake-proof buildings

ARLINGTON – Engineers and scientists are certain that another big earthquake will hit California. They just don’t know when and where it will be.

In the meantime, those researchers are creating better materials that will strengthen future buildings and more sophisticated instruments to measure and evaluate damage after the big one.

Shih-Ho “Simon” Chao, an assistant civil engineering professor at The University of Texas at Arlington, is the principal investigator for an engineering team that has landed a three-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study earthquake survivability and make buildings more durable.

The team will do the lion’s share of its research, which begins this month, at the University of Minnesota’s Multi-Axial Subassemblage Testing Laboratory. The lab features a full-scale testing facility that can shake reinforced concrete beams and columns until they collapse.

“The testing facility there can simulate an earthquake shaking to structural components,” Chao said. “It can take a full-scale reinforced concrete member and shake it as violently as a real earthquake would.”

The test data also will be used for advanced computer modeling by his team member, Curt Haselton from the University of Minnesota, to predict the seismic behavior of real buildings under extreme earthquakes.

The NSF grant is awarded through the George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation program that the NSF started several years ago. NEES is a network of 14 large-scale, experimental sites that feature advanced research tools. All are linked to a centralized data pool and earthquake simulation software, bridged together over high-speed Internet connections.

“We don’t know exactly how a building will react if it experiences a really big earthquake like the one we’re predicting will hit West Coast soon,” Chao said. “Our research will tell us if reinforced concrete buildings could survive when subjected to this extreme earthquake.”

Chao said another part of the research will use high performance steel fibers to replace most rebar in concrete. Chao’s argues such fibers makes construction material much more ductile and less likely to sustain damage.

Chao’s team won the NSF grant after testing their theories on a small scale a few years ago.

“We also want to show how sustainable this new building material could be, how long it might last,” said Chao, who said he expects the American Concrete Industry to accept the team’s findings and require the construction industry to use them.

Chao said the findings could reset the insurance industry as well. Premiums generally are high in geographic areas where earthquakes are likely to occur. Chao said the reinforced concrete and earthquake survivability data could provide insurance companies with enough predictability that they would lower premiums.

Another member of Chao’s team has built sensors that can look at the inside of a damaged building to determine what needs to be done to mend it following an earthquake.

Chao’s team includes Haselton, Arturo Schultz of California State University at Chico and John Popovics from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Chao’s work is representative of the research under way at The University of Texas at Arlington, a comprehensive undergraduate and graduate institution of nearly 33,000 students in the heart of North Texas.

Visit www.uta.edu to learn more about UT Arlington.

Herb Booth, hbooth@uta.edu, 817-272-7075

The University of Texas at Arlington, www.uta.edu