April 18, 2013

Smarter infrastructure vs. natural disasters


Natural disasters, capped by Hurricane Sandy late last year, have underscored the need to protect our infrastructure from extreme events and have caused politicians, engineers and the general public to wonder publicly about how New York City might fare should another storm like Sandy strike.

Major storms are worrisome, too, because of undetected structural problems that might exist in aging infrastructure — problems that, when subjected to the stresses that accompany major storms, might cause catastrophic failure.

Even without a storm, undetected problems can cause trouble. It’s only a few months since huge chunks of concrete began to fall from the roof of a busy highway tunnel west of Tokyo. Showers of sparks grew into a fire that trapped people in their vehicles. Nine died. It was the lack of adequate fault detection that spurred the establishment, in 2011, of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction at England’s Cambridge University. The goal: to develop and commercialize technologies which will change the way infrastructure is managed.

Korky Koroluk

In particular, researchers are looking at innovative ways to use sensors and data management to monitor the every-day performance of bridges, tunnels and roads.

As a result of that work, a team from the centre has announced, not a new sensor, but a new power source for sensors. It’s a mechanical amplifier that converts the vibration of passing traffic, enabling a sensor to generate its own power without the need for batteries.

While there has been an increase in the use of sensors to monitor structural health, “batteries are always the sticking point,” says Kenichi Soga, who heads a research group within the centre.

“It’s not the cost of the batteries that is the issue; it’s the cost of human power to replace the batteries.”

The idea of devices that operate without batteries is not entirely new. There are handheld flashlights available that produce light after being shaken for a couple of minutes. And there are hand-cranked radios that are useful in parts of Africa where many people live far from the electrical grid.

But the device Soga and his team have come up with uses energy from the much wider band of vibrations experienced by bridges, tunnels and roads. It’s called a micro-electromechanical system, or MEMS, and it can be made using the batch manufacturing principles common to the semiconductor industry. That means that large numbers can be produced at low cost.

Prototypes have shown significantly better power output than any currently available devices. The device is being commercialized by Cambridge Enterprise, the university’s technology-transfer office.

Besides the energy-harvesting MEMS, the centre is looking at other ways of improving wireless technologies, fibre optics and other types of sensors. The aim is to establish them as the norm for the construction industry and for those asset managers responsible for monitoring bridges, tunnels, roads, railways and other types of infrastructure.

The Cambridge MEMS fits nicely with work being done in the United States by others interested in better infrastructure management.

One researcher, Tom O’Rourke, of Cornell University, has argued that big storms, like Sandy, have forced a shift in the way risks of natural disasters are evaluated. That means different approaches are needed to protect infrastructure.

And Bill Spencer, of the University of Illinois, often speaks of gathering data to use in managing infrastructure. One successful project he mentions is a network of smart sensors installed on the bridge linking Jindo island with the south tip of mainland South Korea. The bridge has a 344-metre main span.

He makes two points about such networks: They reduce inspection and maintenance costs, and, even more important, they improve public safety in an era when public infrastructure is being stressed by extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent in a warming world.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to editor@dailycommercialnews.com

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