Discussing current issues in engineering
Rapid snowmelt events have the potential to contribute to hazardous flooding in the United States and researchers are hoping to improve the design of infrastructure to withstand increased flooding levels from unseasonable snowmelt.
While snow usually melts gradually as seasons move from winter into spring, unseasonably warm temperatures and rain falls onto snow packs can lead to severe flooding events. This is putting newfound pressures on infrastructure designed to withstand rain precipitation and not additional water from snowmelt. Researchers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of New Hampshire are hoping to improve current flooding estimates for civil engineers by incorporating snowmelt estimates into precipitation estimates for regions across the United States.
The national standards that civil engineers use to design flood resistant infrastructure (NOAA Atlas 14) exclusively uses liquid precipitation estimates and not water from snowmelt. In order to improve this standard, Eunsang Cho, a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and Jennifer Jacobs, a civil engineering professor at the University of New Hampshire, created a map that incorporates snowmelt into current precipitation maps for the continental United States.
Cho and Jacobs developed an estimate of snow water equivalent (SWE) that measures the amount of water contained in snowpack. They combined the SWE measure with NOAA’s precipitation data to provide a more accurate picture of NOAA’s current standard precipitation values.
They discovered that in snow-dominant regions, the incorporation of snowmelt increased total precipitation estimates up to 7.52 inches and nearly 17 inches for 25- and 100- year flood estimates respectively. They also found that 23% of the 44 states for which NOAA provides precipitation data, had higher precipitation values than those provided by NOAA.
Brian Henn, a scientist working on global climate models at Vulcan highlighted the fact that some of the most extreme snow melting events have occurred within the last 10 years, indicating that flooding events from snowmelt are becoming increasingly hazardous, especially when older infrastructure is not designed to withstand increasing flooding events due to precipitation from snow melts.
It is important to note, however, that NOAA Atlas 14 still works for most regions of the country where snowmelt is not a significant concern. But for mountainous regions of the western U.S. that contain heavy snowpack, NOAA values are becoming inadequate for estimating realistic precipitation amounts. Cho and Jacobs hope that their findings can improve current guidelines and further inform civil engineers so they can incorporate larger flooding events into the design of infrastructure. For more info you can read Cho and Jacobs’ complete published research article here.
Boulders Slowing Progress on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel Expansion Project Now 2 Years Behind Schedule
Originally slated to be completed in 2022, the construction of a second Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in Virginia Beach is now officially two years behind schedule with the newest hinderance to timely construction being large granite boulders.
The tunnel expansion project is designed to add two additional tunnels parallel to the two current tunnels in order to end the two-way traffic congestion inside the existing tunnels. Construction of the first new tunnel started in 2017 and is being built under a shipping channel located nearest to Virginia Beach. The project was originally scheduled to be completed in 2022 with a price tag of $756 million. However, after a number of delays, the current projected completion date is 2024 with giant boulders being the newest obstacle.
The granite boulders, as large as 6 feet in diameter and weighing up to 25 tons, help make up two 5.25 acre manmade islands. In order to construct the new 5,700 ft long tunnel, the boulders need to be excavated in order to provide access for a tunnel boring machine (TBM) arriving from Germany this year. The TBM is designed to bore through soft soil, not hard granite boulders. Therefore, the construction contractors must pound steel pilings through the boulders as part of the excavation effort to provide access for the TBM. Mike Crist, the bridge tunnel’s deputy executive director of infrastructure described this process as driving a nail through granite rock.
As a result, construction progress is going much slower than anticipated due to the new boulder debacle and construction on the second parallel tunnel is not expected to begin before 2037. You can find more info on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel project and the tunnel boring process here.
Next Milestone Complete for a Major Addition to the Only Railway Bridge Connecting Virginia to Washington D.C.
Virginia and DC transportation officials recently announced that environmental impact assessments have been completed for a proposed railway crossing over the Potomac River. The new metro bridge would ease current traffic congestion and ultimately provide hourly passenger rail service between Richmond and Washington DC.
The bridge plan includes two passenger railroad tracks and a pedestrian bridge built alongside the current 116-year-old Long Bridge Potomac crossing, which has been operating at 98% capacity for decades and is currently the only railroad bridge connecting Virginia to DC.
The new bridge construction would allow for passenger rail service to operate on its own tracks rather than sharing the existing track with freight trains. This means passenger trains could leave and arrive hourly throughout the day between Richmond and DC in addition to easing the current traffic bottleneck for commuter rail operations in Northern Virginia.
Amtrak has pledged $944 million to the project and the VRE Commuter Rail Operating and Capital Fund is allowing the use of tolls from Interstate 66 to help fund the project. Virginia’s contribution is relying on an amendment to the two-year budget that would allow the transportation trust fund to keep road and transit construction projects moving forward.
Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine highlighted the fact that this new bridge construction would be opening up rail capacity for the entire Mid-Atlantic by connecting the Northeast and Southeast rail corridors of the U.S. which would allow for exponential growth in freight and commuter rail service throughout Virginia. Valentine further explained that this would expand capacity for the Port of Virginia and connect workers to important employment centers, which would contribute to the economic recovery of COVID-19 and overall growth of the Commonwealth.
With the completion of the environmental impact study, Virginia can begin preliminary engineering for the project with the possibility of Virginia Railway Express trains starting service to and from Baltimore beginning as soon as 2025. You can learn more at the official Long Bridge project website.
Imagine powering up your laptop or phone by simply connecting them to the brick walls of your house.
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri are working to do just that with the successful transformation of every-day red bricks into energy storage devices currently capable of powering LED lights.
Julio M. D’Arcy, assistant professor of chemistry and fellow chemistry department scientists recently published their research highlighting the development of “smart bricks”.
Using the strong porous structure naturally found in bricks, D’Arcy and colleagues pumped gases through these pores, which reacted with the brick’s chemical components, creating a coating called PEDOT. The coating comprised of plastic nanofibers embedded inside the brick acts as a sponge capable of storing and conducting electricity within the brick.
Considering bricks already occupy large amounts of space in the form of walls and buildings, this common building material could be utilized as an additional means to store electricity. For example, when used as electricity storage for solar panels, D’Arcy estimates that 50 smart bricks could power LED lighting for up to five hours from stored electricity.
However, there are some limitations with the initial development of smart brick technology. Similar to traditional batteries, the bricks can store large amounts of energy. But batteries can hold onto the charge of electricity and continually deliver it over long periods of time, while the initial research shows that smart bricks can only sustain the stored electricity for short periods of time.
But with further research and development of smart brick capabilities, there is significant potential for someday optimizing the use of everyday brick walls for powering your everyday devices.
Virginia Tech chemical engineering researchers have developed a coating that has proven to kill 99.9% of the COVID-19 virus on many common-use surfaces. William Ducker and other Virginia Tech scientists in collaboration with researchers from the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health tested the coating on everyday items including doorknobs, credit card readers used at cashier check-outs, and shopping cart handles. They found that within one hour of applying the coating, the virus was undetectable.
With research indicating COVID-19 can stay viable on some surfaces for up to three days, this new coating has promising potential for fighting the spread of the virus on surfaces.
The coating is made of cuprous oxide, a form of copper, and polyurethane. Ducker and colleagues found that with two coats of painting on a surface, the coating can retain its potency of killing the virus for months. Even after immersing a coated surface in water for 13 days, it continued to kill new exposures to the virus. So ultimately, once the coating is on a surface, it does not require continuous re-coating or any re-sanitizing.
Ducker hopes the coating, he calls “Safety Coat,” can be used by industries and applied to surfaces in many public spaces including hospitals, classrooms, and public transit. In the meantime, the researchers are continuing further tests of the coating’s effectiveness to reduce the one-hour activation time to a matter of minutes.
To read the complete published research along with images of the coating in use, see the full article in the American Chemical Society.
With summer road construction underway, associate professor Luna Lu at Purdue University is developing a new technology that could help ease the constant need for highway road repairs across the U.S.
Lu and her team are investigating the use of chemical agents mixed into concrete that absorb and react with water to produce a solid substance that effectively self-seals cracks in the concrete. This technology could also help prevent the seepage of water into concrete and reduce the corrosion of rebar reinforcement.
With the U.S. receiving a D+ rating for infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ most recent U.S. infrastructure report card and an estimated 1 in 3 U.S. highway bridges in need of repair or replacement according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, this technology has the potential to extend the service life of pavements and roads thereby easing the strain on U.S. infrastructure.
In 2019 Lu also developed a concrete sensor technology currently embedded into Indiana highways that provides data on the strength of newly poured concrete, which allows for contractors to know when a new concrete patch is strong enough to be opened to heavy traffic. The sensors can also be permanently left in highways and continually provide real-time information on concrete deterioration.
While the self-sealing research currently applies exclusively to concrete, Lu hopes to expand this technology to asphalt and other road materials in the future. She is also working with the Indiana Department of Transportation to incorporate self-sealing concrete technology into highway bridges by 2021.
Associate Professor Osman Ozbulut at the University of Virginia is no stranger to earthquakes after experiencing them while growing up in Elazığ, Turkey.
The first student in Texas A&M’s civil engineering department to deeply research shape memory alloys, Dr. Ozbulut currently teaches at UVA’s Department of Engineering Systems and Environment. He later set up the Resilient and Advanced Infrastructure Laboratory at UVA. Since 2012, the professor’s time at UVA has been largely dedicated to building resilient, sustainable civil infrastructure systems, and his research on building material is one way to contribute to new engineering design while benefiting communities that suffer from natural disasters.
Dr. Ozbulut’s point of focus in his research are shape memory alloys because they are easily installed, effective, and resilient. The damper system is “the first shape memory alloy-based device that has the potential to be easily and cheaply fabricated to protect buildings from earthquakes in the future.” The device would essentially “absorb” the destructive energy of an earthquake and bounce back to its original shape, keeping buildings largely undamaged.
Studies show that the majority of deaths during earthquakes are due to the collapse of poorly built structures, but if new technologies like this are widely implemented, buildings would take the brunt of the damage while protecting those inside—and buildings themselves wouldn’t suffer as much damage. The technology is still being tested but results look promising! To read more about Dr. Ozbulut’s research on smart metals, see the full article here.
Record rainfall in the past weeks has highlighted the need for improved dam infrastructure after two dams failed in Michigan, and one potential dam failure in southwestern Virginia led to thirteen evacuated homes as a safety precaution.
The two dams that failed in Michigan were high-hazard dams, following a pattern of two-thirds of the state’s dams that are in a similar condition. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) estimates at least $23 billion in funding is needed to repair high risk state dams across the nation.
Creating and supporting funding efforts by federal and state governments is essential for dam repair because, unlike other infrastructures, most dams in the U.S. are privately owned, which leaves owners responsible for financial upkeep. Occasional upgrades and maintenance are necessary for dams to continue serving their purpose. Deterioration over time, changes in requirements, and a given area’s precipitation can all lead to needed repairs.
Luckily, there are legislations addressing dam infrastructure currently making their way through federal approval. Last week Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) introduced the Dam Safety Improvement Act, which would better support the existing dam program and additionally provides better definitions for technical terms. The American Society of Civil Engineers fully supports this legislation, as dams are vital structures in protecting communities and driving the economy forward. The ASCE also hopes for the passing of the bipartisan America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020, which would authorize increased infrastructure projects and awaits a vote in the Senate.
In a paper published by the Structural Health Monitoring journal, researchers give details on how they created an AI system to analyze and assess the damage of bolt connections in metallic structures.
The AI system, named SHMnet, was trained using four repeated datasets and showed a 100% success rate when identifying damage in test structures. SHMnet could be incredibly useful to structural engineers, civil engineers, and government organizations who are responsible for and consistently monitor the structural integrity of metal structures like bridges, towers, dams, and other metal structures. With more fine-tuning, this machine learning algorithm would make engineers’ jobs easier and more accurate while making large structures safer to the public.
Researcher Dr. Ying Wang, one of the paper’s authors and Assistant Professor at the University of Surrey, writes, “While there is more to do, such as testing SHMnet under different vibration conditions and obtaining more training data, the real test is for this system to be used in the field where a reliable, accurate, and affordable way of monitoring infrastructure is sorely needed.”
We love hearing about ongoing developments in the field and hope you do, too! To read more about this study, see the full article here on the University of Surrey’s website.
In this month’s issue of the ASCE’s Civil Engineering magazine, Robert L. Reid and Laurie A. Shuster published a study done on the best places to work in Civil Engineering in the country—and parts of Virginia made the top 10 list!
The study began by studying salary but eventually added in other factors to their index score. Cost of living and job availability were considered alongside average salary to determine the best place for civil engineers to live and work. Houston, Texas claimed the number one spot on the list with an overall score of 264.8. The list puts Washington, D.C. at fourth place with an index of 208.8, but the city listing includes parts of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia with their consideration.
A driving force behind the region’s success is the federal government, which provides contracting jobs well beyond D.C.’s city limits. Virginia’s Department of Transportation provides ample work for transportation engineers that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon considering constant developments in public transportation in the region. D.C. also launched Sustainable D.C. in 2013, a program intended to make the city a healthy, environmentally friendly city to be in. With plans to increase renewable energy use significantly by 2032, environmental engineers have plenty to work to do in the South Atlantic.
Amazon’s recent announcement to locate its second headquarters in Virginia, along with the state’s rapid population growth, also benefit people who work or plan to start working in the area as multifunctional development becomes even more important. To read more about the details of this study, see the ASCE’s article here.
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