Two of Three 2017 IDEA Awards Go to SOE Researchers

The National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) recently accepted three proposals as part of a national search for ideas to improve highway safety. Two of them were from the UAB School of Engineering.

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Focusing on widely different areas of research, SOE faculty Thomas Attard (top) and Dean Sicking (bottom) each won an IDEA award, claiming two of the three prizes awarded nationally for the UAB School of Engineering.

Mechanical Engineering Professor Dean Sicking, Ph.D., and Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering Associate Professor Thomas Attard, Ph.D., submitted separate proposals for the NCHRP’s IDEA award program. The award, which stands for “Innovation Deserving Exploratory Analysis” is given annually for projects “with potential to advance the construction, safety, maintenance and management of highway systems.” Their submissions were chosen from among nearly 50 proposals NCHRP received.

“It is extraordinary that two of the three winners nationally could come from one school, but given the experience and dedication of the faculty involved, it is not surprising,” said School of Engineering Dean Iwan Alexander, Ph.D. “Every day, we see work in a variety of fields which generates knowledge that promises to change the world. These two professors are very deserving of the funding and attention that their contributions to highway safety will receive. We are proud of the work they do.”

Designing a Smarter Crash Cushion

Bringing order to something as chaotic as a car crash is no small feat, but Sicking is no newcomer to highway safety innovation. He gained recognition in recent years as the inventor of the SAFER barrier that is now used on auto racing tracks around the world. Before that, he revolutionized highway safety by inventing guardrail terminals that were installed along interstates across the nation.

crash cushionCrash cushions have proven effective in saving drivers, but current designs require costly and sometimes dangerous repairs.Kevin Schrum, Ph.D., a research engineer in the Mechanical Engineering Department, authored the IDEA proposal based on his own experience in conducting cost-benefit analyses on crash cushions. Sicking and Schrum recognized a growing need in the market for a high-performance crash cushion capable of conducting its own maintenance. They received an IDEA award worth $100,000 to design this high-tech crash cushion—improving on a product Sicking designed as a graduate student in the 1980s.

“Crash cushions are the devices you see on interstate exit ramps and other places where two lanes of traffic diverge around a solid barrier,” Sicking explained. “They are designed to absorb the energy of a crash, so when a vehicle strikes the barrier, the individual components collapse and are destroyed.”

The devices work well for crashes, Sicking says, but it often takes days or even weeks to rebuild and install the devices after an accident—a process that costs thousands of dollars and considerable risk to workers who have to stop traffic to perform the repair. Meanwhile, the dangerous barrier sits unprotected.

Under Sicking’s new plan, crash cushions will be made of stronger non-sacrificial parts. The cushion will still collapse to absorb the energy of the crash, but the parts will not be destroyed. In addition, the cushion will be equipped with sensors to measure the impact speed and angle of the crash—data that will be immediately available to highway officials and other authorities. This information can be transmitted instantly when a crash occurs, so there is no need to visit the scene to know what happened.

Equally important, Sicking says, is that the device can be redeployed remotely, reducing the risk of a second crash occurring before the cushion can be reinstalled. “The cushion will be mechanized so that, once the wreck is cleared, the unit can be reset and the cushion will return to its original shape,” he said. “By doing this remotely at the flip of a switch, there is no reason to block traffic or send a repair crew to the scene.”

What Lies Beneath? Diagnosing an Aging Infrastructure

Millions of miles of interstate bridges were constructed over the previous century. To the untrained eye of the passing motorist, those concrete structures may look as solid now as the day they were built. In these aging bridges, however, current inspection methods can only detect discrete sub-surface defects up to two centimeters of depth.

concrete bridgeAging highways and bridges may look structurally sound, but Thomas Attard says a more sophisticated technology can help inspectors detect dangerous defects.“Once you get beyond two centimeters, the damage within concrete is typically defined relative to undamaged regions,” said Attard. “This limits accurate deep-surface evaluation of bridge damage, as well as the accuracy of bridge analysis and bridge ratings. Additionally, it limits the reliability of any retrofit design/preservation program.”

In an effort to see beyond those limitations, the NCHRP awarded Attard’s team $240,500 to develop an innovative non-destructive evaluation method for damaged reinforced concrete or prestressed bridge components. The research will examine bridge damage analogously to a medical diagnosis provided by an MRI (or X-Ray), followed by an appropriate treatment. However, just as a medical diagnosis of a broken wrist in a young person may yield a different prognosis (and “retrofit plan”) than a broken wrist in an older person due to different bone density, age, activity-level (environment), overall health, etc., an "MRI" of two bridges may lead to two very different retrofit plans, each custom-designed to optimize energy dissipation, maximize 'recovery,' minimize risk of future injury, and minimize cost

“We are going to use an optimal multi-coil design for radio frequency inductive testing, or RFIT, to discretely identify defects,” Attard said. “We feel that because RFIT utilizes low-frequency resonant magnetic fields instead of electromagnetic fields, we may be able to dial-in the necessary magnetic field waves to deeply penetrate concrete structures and resolutely identify defects. This means geometric identification of deep sub-surface defects by providing maximum resolution and penetration-depth.”

As a proof-of-concept, Attard says his team plans to develop a Cost‐Value model for aging bridge components. “Our experimental test-bed is three large reinforced concrete beams that will be damaged sequentially over a two-year period and evaluated for deep defects, such as pitting corrosion, cracks, and bond-slip, using our innovative optimal multi-coil RFIT approach,” he said. “We will also apply the technique to an existing bridge and design an appropriate cost-value retrofit.

The award of $240,500 includes cost-sharing from UAB; Thornton Tomasetti; Architecture, Engineering, Construction, Operations, and Management (AECOM); and Associated General Contractors (AGC).