UTSA’s New Test Lab Could Help Engineers Limit Damage from Natural Disasters

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A cement girder is placed on UTSA's new reaction floor, which allows testing of infrastructure materials by large machinery applying millions of pounds of force.

The University of Texas at San Antonio unveiled a large-scale lab Thursday that will help engineers and private industry test the hardiness of bridges, highways, and other critical infrastructure against the pressure of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.

Able to test loads of up to 4 million pounds of force, UTSA College of Engineering officials believe they have constructed the highest-capacity reaction floor in the country. The building resembles a warehouse with concrete flooring and metal siding. Inside the 50-foot-tall lab, equivalent to nearly five stories, researchers sat at computers manipulating a blue frame attached to dual crane pulleys. 

“We wanted it to be unique,” said Associate Professor Wassim Ghannoum. “We wanted it to be something that nobody else in the country can do, and I think we have achieved this. … If you can imagine a three-story building in this lab, we can break it. And we would love to break it if you have one handy.”

UTSA researchers showcased the lab in a live demonstration. Using the dual cranes on the reaction floor, the researchers cracked a parking garage girder, or steel beam. At hundreds of thousands of pounds of force, the demo showed just a fraction of the lab’s testing capacity.

 

The $10 million project was funded with tuition revenue bonds approved during the 2015 state Legislature, and construction began in 2017.

JoAnn Browning, dean of the College of Engineering, said the university was going to host a groundbreaking ceremony for the lab back in 2017. Ironically, Hurricane Harvey got in the way of those plans.

The test lab offers a way for researchers and practicing civil engineers to build and test structural systems so that the damage from hurricanes and other catastrophic events can be mitigated and homeowners and businesses can recover faster, Browning said.

“The natural hazards that we face here in the U.S. and across the world are certainly at the forefront of research in infrastructure these days,” she said.

In 2018, the Texas Comptroller’s office estimated that Hurricane Harvey cost government entities and private insurers about $31 billion in disaster relief and rebuilding costs. Many business operations were running within five days of the event, but some, many of them manufacturers, experienced disruptions of two weeks or more.

Among those attending Thursday’s grand opening of the Large-Scale Testing Laboratory was Steven McCabe, who heads the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program. The program, along with federal agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey, has been exploring new design models to make buildings more resilient to natural disasters and to allay the economic cost of a devastating event, McCabe said.

“It’s important to avoid having the economic mess that comes after something like an earthquake or a hurricane, and maybe having a higher design level going forward in new constructions makes sense,” he said. “We’re going to have a higher level of design, something that we really are going to impose and expect the structure to get back in the game.”

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Steven McCabe, director of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program

UTSA said private engineering firms will partner with the university to test their structures at scale. The companies will pay the university a fee to use the lab only to cover the costs of equipment maintenance, Browning said.

Not only will faculty, staff, and students use the UTSA lab but so will the broader community, Provost Kimberly Andrews Espy said.

“I am so excited for what this facility actually means because this is really San Antonio’s facility,” she said.

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