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University at Buffalo Pursues Infrastructure Tech Research

University at Buffalo joins Transportation Infrastructure Precast Innovation Center, where five schools will spend $10 million to improve ways precast concrete is used in highway and bridge construction.

Piles of cash in the foreground faded over an image of the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.
The University at Buffalo will get $1.6 million in federal funding to improve applications for road and bridge precast concrete construction materials that are far more durable and efficient than traditional concrete poured at work sites.

With the grant, announced in a recent news release, UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Science joins a consortium of four other universities that was awarded $10 million over five years to create longer-lasting transportation infrastructure. The U.S. Department of Transportation is funding the program. The Transportation Infrastructure Precast Innovation Center (TRANS-IPIC) is based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which will oversee contributions to this initiative by UB, Purdue University, Louisiana State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

The specific research projects for each school haven’t been announced, but UB’s general specialty in this consortium is bridge engineering, with expertise in material science, concrete structures, robotics, health monitoring and additive manufacturing, associate professor of civil engineering Pinar Okumus said in the news release.

Okumus, who is also the associate director of TRANS-IPIC, said researchers from the five schools will incorporate new technologies to enhance and improve current applications of precast concrete.

“Precast concrete bridges make up most of the new bridges in the U.S.,” Okumus said in a public statement. “Precast concrete is also common for other infrastructure elements such as tunnels, airports and railroads. They are preferred over alternatives because precast concrete structures can be rapidly built, greatly reducing traffic delays and detours associated with construction. Because precast concrete is used often, enhancing the quality of the materials, construction methods and monitoring methods for precast concrete structures will have a big impact on the U.S. infrastructure.”

Unlike traditional concrete, precast concrete is a composite material made in a factory, not on-site at the road or bridge locations, and it lasts longer while requiring less maintenance. Research utilizes 3D printing technology where computers are used to solidify materials that would be studied and potentially used in infrastructure construction. According to the news release, Ravi Ranade, associate professor and a faculty member with UB’s Institute of Bridge Engineering (IBE), is developing advances in the ways precast concrete is processed, and associate professor Chi Zhou of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering is creating designs for bridges made with precast concrete.

“My goal in the center is to advance the additive manufacturing technology for bridge construction by making the bridge builds faster, smarter and more resilient,” Zhou said in a public statement. “I intend to study the printability of multifunctional materials, design the automation and control modules, and develop 3D printing systems for the bridge construction.”

According to the TRANS-IPIC website, 20 percent of highway miles and 42 percent of bridges in the United States are in poor condition. The institution says there are other emerging technologies that could assist in rebuilding America’s roadway infrastructure, including nanomaterials and robotics, but precast concrete is less expensive and much easier to incorporate into the construction process.

“RANS-IPIC enables research innovation and industry support to provide guidance and leadership in the dormant field of precast concrete technology in transportation. We aim to achieve this goal by optimizing PC design, construction and maintenance,” the organization’s mission statement says. “Our research will develop solutions for current infrastructure problems and revolutionize the development and performance of future transportation infrastructure, providing gains in durability, safety and economy as well as reducing environmental impact and resources required for repair and replacement.”