Advanced Seismic Isolation Tech Makes California's Benicia-Martinez Bridge Safe During Earthquakes

The technology in essence places huge structures like buildings, refineries, and bridges on rolling casters that absorb the shocks from epic earthquakes.

by Katy St. Clair, Times-Herald / September 11, 2017

(TNS) -- Scientists say the next major earthquake in Northern California will emanate from the Hayward Fault, and it’s not a matter of “if” but “when,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Many people fear being on a bridge when “the big one” hits, but thanks to technology developed by engineer Victor Zayas, folks driving on the Benicia-Martinez Bridge as it starts to shake might just be some of the luckiest.

Zayas is president of Earthquake Protection Systems, or E.P.S., and he holds the patents for what he calls “Friction pendulum bearings,” an advanced seismic isolation technology that in essence places huge structures like buildings, refineries, and bridges on rolling casters that absorb the shocks from epic earthquakes.

These products are forged right here in Vallejo, on Mare Island, in his 12-acre factory housed in an old, bomb-proof Navy building off Azuar Drive.

The bearings range in size from a few feet across to massive, 20 million pound saucers.

A dozen people showed up there on Saturday to meet Zayas and tour his facility as part of the Visions of the Wild weekend. Many in attendance were self-described science geeks and the just plain curious.

“I came to get a real sense of the scale of these things,” said Herb Masters, a science blogger and member of the Bay Area science and skepticism scene.

The company that Zayas started in the mid-80s is now a gigantic success, protecting equally gigantic structures such as the Apple Campus in Cupertino, The San Francisco Airport, The Cathedral of Christ The Light in Oakland, and bridges and buildings all over the country and world. 80 percent of his products go into government buildings.

Most buildings are erected with the bare-minimum codes, he said, adding that the attitude from engineers is often, “‘As long as you walk out of the building alive, we’ve done our job.,’" Zayas said. “But E.P.S. keeps certain essential facilities functioning after an earthquake.”

So though many buildings in America don’t get completely reduced to rubble during large seismic events, the vast majority of them end up being condemned afterword. Critical places like hospitals often have to be evacuated of their patients after an earthquake, or bridges cannot be used to transport people who might need help.

This is what Zayas said he and his company are trying to change. The buildings E.P.S. goes into will hopefully not only stay standing but also remain functioning after a seismic event, he said.

The most astonishing thing about the E.P.S. factory is that every single element of it had to be specially engineered for its products. But the most impressive machine sits in the back of the complex, a blue and yellow superstructure rising high to the ceiling — the earthquake simulator.

This massive, vice-like beast tests every single shock absorber that leaves the factory, putting it through the paces of a large-scale quake.

On Saturday, Zayas gave the signal to his technician and the simulator lurched into action. It’s not as herky-jerky as one would think, moving instead in a more smooth but deliberate manner. This is because it is simulating how a skyscraper would move, not a vase on a mantle.

Currently, E.P.S. is working on the bearings that will protect the new stadium for the Rams in Los Angeles.

Despite the seeming “no brainer” of the need for such products in large buildings, Zayas said that most of his customers come to he and his team because they specifically want to go beyond the required code and build the safest structures possible.

Perhaps someday, such things will be a requirement, not a choice.

In the meantime, Zayas said he gains great satisfaction from his work, and though he’s in his 60s, he plans on doing this for at least another 20 years.

“I believe I have saved a lot of lives,” he said.

©2017 Times-Herald (Vallejo, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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