Making future buildings safer
The capacity to realistically test the integrity of new materials and structures such as buildings, bridges and even airframes has been boosted thanks to a new Smart Structures Laboratory at Swinburne University of Technology.
The laboratory houses Australia’s first hybrid testing facility (HTF), state-of-the-art technology which integrates what is happening to a physical model being stress-tested with a virtual model of the whole structure in which it would be a component.
This allows researchers to build real-time profiles of the complex structural relationships that determine a building’s capacity to withstand extreme forces.
The new laboratory’s director Professor Riadh Al-Mahaidi, an international leader in the field of bridge engineering, said the technology would open up the way for the next generation of construction materials to be thoroughly tested and provide industry and consumers with the necessary level of confidence in performance and safety.
The other team members assembled to run the facility have been drawn from key fields of expertise: Professor John Wilson, earthquake engineering, Professor Emad Gad, structural engineering, and Professor Jay Sanjayan, geopolymers.
Professor Sanjayan will be using the HTF to demonstrate to industry advances in geopolymers, which are manufactured from industrial wastes such as fly ash, slag and waste glass, and their potential as an alternative to cement.
"Conventional cement has been around for over 100 years, so there is a natural hesitation to use something new," he said. "This facility will help us demonstrate geopolymers are not only better environmentally, but also have improved structural properties."
According to Professor Sanjayan conventional cement can explode when subjected to the heat of an intense fire. "Geopolymers have high fire resistance and can be a superior product overall. We expect the new facility to be able to steer geopolymers into commercial use within five years."
Professor Wilson intends to use the laboratory to push the boundaries of knowledge on "building drift" in an earthquake.
"We know a lot about gravity load, which ultimately causes a building to collapse, and about the lateral strength needed to accommodate wind pressure and ground shake; but an area needing more research is ‘building drift’," he said.
"If a building drifts too far (through earth movement), gravity load takes over...but how far is too far?"
Professor Wilson is keen to explore this issue of "drift" in building systems, especially integral systems such as lift shafts.
"A lift shaft is not just for vertical people transport. it forms the spine for the building’s lateral construction. So knowing how far lift shafts can drift before they cause the building to collapse is a key question," Professor Wilson said.
The research closer to home is that of Professor Emad Gad, whose area of speciality is residential structures. Through his research the HTF will play a crucial role in the evolution of new housing materials and building systems needed to develop more affordable and more environmentally attuned dwellings.
"The tests we undertake will help establish new approaches to housing by testing and calibrating the new materials and construction methods that will influence design, functionality and affordability," he said.
"So as community pressure grows for more affordable and more environmental housing, the HTF will speed up the R&D needed to achieve these goals."
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