Build a bridge out of steel and concrete and you’ll wind up with a structure capable of many years of reliable service with moderate maintenance required. Build that same bridge of composite materials, and you will end up with a stronger structure that is less costly to maintain and eventually upgrade. That is the thinking behind a brand-new project now being worked on in Europe.
The project, dubbed Damage Control of Composite Materials (DACOMAT), began this past January and is slated to run through the end of 2021. Five European countries have banded together to fund research into improving composite materials for bridges, piers, building structures, wind turbine blades, etc. They are hoping their work ultimately results in better infrastructure at a lower cost.
How important is lower cost? It’s everything, according to Utah composites supplier Rock West Composites. Bringing down the cost is the single most important component in expanding composite applications.
The Bridge Example Is Clear
Project participants defend their research and its eventual goals by citing the example of a steel and concrete bridge. With current technology, it is entirely possible to build a very strong and reliable bridge that lasts for decades. And yet, both concrete and steel have inherent weaknesses that require ongoing maintenance. For example, concrete degrades with environmental exposure. It has to be routinely inspected and repaired in order to maintain integrity.
Concrete and steel also have their structural limitations. Say you want to widen that bridge in order to accommodate extra lanes on either side. The existing structure may not be able to support the weight of the new lanes safely. Now you’re looking at adding extra support columns where possible. If it’s not possible, you’re looking at demolishing the bridge and building something new from the ground up.
As great as concrete and steel are for infrastructure projects, their limitations also limit their cost-effectiveness. The DACOMAT project is being conducted on the underlying assumption that composite materials have fewer limits. The understanding is that composites are stronger and more reliable than steel and concrete, they are easier to maintain, and they are more easily upgraded as future needs arise.
Whether or not the project’s primary assertions are true remains to be seen. But that’s why the research is being done. If the DACOMAT project can succeed in coming up with composite materials capable of all but replacing steel and concrete for infrastructure purposes, it will accomplish something engineers have been dreaming about for decades.
The Project’s Main Goal
Although experts hope that DACOMAT will eventually lead to all sorts of applications ranging from offshore structures to wind turbines, the main goal of the project is to come up with damage-tolerant and damage-predictable composite materials for bridge decks. Decks and other bridge components offer a plethora of opportunities to implement and study different designs.
Engineers will be developing both composite materials and monitoring systems along the way. Not only do they want to build tougher, more damage-resistant bridge decks, but they also want to be able to continuously monitor the performance of those decks in real time. This will help them better understand maintenance and upgrade needs.
When all is said and done, the project hopes to produce guidelines for implementing measuring systems and designing critical structures made from damage-tolerant and damage-predictable composites. Success would mean more bridge decks made of composite materials rather than steel and concrete. It would mean stronger wind turbine blades, more stable offshore structures, and future infrastructure projects that are more easily upgraded at a lower cost.
Can it be done? Time will tell.