Breaking Down Innovation

July 19, 2011

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Innovation in any field entails some risk. But for large-scale construction projects, mistakes can put lives in danger. That why people from all over the world bring their innovative construction designs and materials to NC State’s Constructed Facilities Laboratory (CFL) – to test their ideas before using them in construction projects. And to test construction materials and designs, you need to break things. In a big way.

For the past 10 years, the CFL has been one of the busiest research facilities in the United States to focus on structural engineering and innovative construction materials and systems. The lab is currently engaged in over 20 funded research projects, and their work has been financed by agencies ranging from the National Science Foundation to the North Carolina Department of Transportation – as well as a host of private companies and foreign countries from Korea to France.

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“The key is innovation,” says Dr. Sami Rizkalla, director of the CFL. “New materials and techniques can make projects safer and more cost-effective. But before we use them, we need to know they are safe.”

The CFL designs experiments that test materials at full scale. For example, instead of testing a small sample, they have the tools and expertise to test a 42-foot reinforced concrete wall panel – subjecting it to extreme conditions to see how much abuse it can take before it breaks. Once they know the limits of new designs and materials, engineers can use them with confidence.

The CFL gives students an opportunity to get hands-on research experience.

And the CFL is equipped to test just about anything. CFL experts can simulate earthquakes, expose a structure to extreme temperatures, and see just how much weight a structure can take. “We can easily apply two million pounds of force,” says Greg Lucier, the CFL’s lab manager.

More importantly, CFL’s faculty and staff know how to use its tools to simulate real world conditions. For example, they can simultaneously expose a bridge piling to extreme heat or cold, the pushing and pulling of wind, salt water, and an extreme load of weight. That’s important, because it tells bridge builders exactly how the structure would behave in extreme real-world conditions.

The CFL team has worked on innovative structural designs and materials used across the country: from the reinforcements used in the foundations of the Freedom Tower in New York, to the massive wooden “glulam” beams in the new terminal at RDU airport. CFL has even worked with electric utilities to develop means of reinforcing existing nuclear power facilities.

For budding structural engineers, NC State may be the place to go. While the CFL work is primarily done by graduate students and faculty, there are definitely opportunities for interested undergraduates. It’s a great way to break into the field.