Goal: Prevent Catastrophic Failures, Minimize Maintenance Costs and Expensive Repairs

Zakim Bridge in Boston Image by Matthew Miller/Wikimedia Commons

The Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, one of the widest cable-stayed bridges in the world, serves as the northern gateway to the City of Boston. University researchers are developing sensing fabric technology to help manage and maintain the safety, efficiency and sustainability of the nation’s civil infrastructures.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

A team of UMass Lowell researchers has partnered with a research and development company to create new, cost-effective sensor-laden textiles that can be used to monitor the structural health and integrity of vital infrastructures across the country, including buildings and skyscrapers, roadways, bridges, tunnels, railway tracks, dams and pipelines.

Prof. Pradeep Kurup and Assoc. Prof. Tzuyang Yu of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Prof. Xingwei Wang of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering are collaborating with researchers from Saint-Gobain, a multinational corporation with an R&D center based in Northborough, to develop fabrics integrated with optical fibers and sensors. These fabrics can be applied to existing structures to monitor strain or detect cracks in their early stages, thereby minimizing maintenance costs, environmental impacts and disruptions to the people’s lives and businesses.

“Optical fiber sensors are very suitable for structural health monitoring for their light weight, low cost, survivability in harsh environments and immunity to electromagnetic environments,” says Wang. “More importantly, they can provide fully distributed sensing information about an object’s structural integrity. Combined with novel textile technology, the sensing fabrics will be relatively easy to install and maintain. They will be very useful for long-distance sensing applications.”

The project is supported by an $853,000 grant from the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), which is part of the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation Institutes. AFFOA’s mission is to enable the manufacturing industry to transform traditional fibers, yarns and textiles into highly functional integrated and networked devices and systems.

A State of Disrepair

In 2016, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructures an overall grade of D+, indicating that they urgently need major repairs and improvements to make them safe, sustainable and economically efficient. The organization estimates that a $2 trillion investment over the next decade is needed for the necessary repairs and upgrades.

“The unique sensing capability of our proposed fabric will enable engineers to better predict the structural health of civil infrastructures and assist decision makers and stakeholders to better distribute limited resources for infrastructure repair, rehabilitation or rebuild,” says Yu.

Group photo of researchers

The research team includes, front row from left, graduate students Susom Dutta (civil and environmental engineering) and Sicong Tao (electrical and computer engineering), and back row from left, Prof. Xingwei Wang (ECE), Sahas Rathi (Saint-Gobain), Assoc. Prof. Tzuyang Yu (CEE), Nancy Brown (Saint-Gobain) and Prof. Pradeep Kurup (chair, CEE).

For example, there are more than 614,000 state-owned highway bridges in the U.S., and about 53 percent of them — nearly 323,000 — are in fair or poor condition. Most of the states’ transportation agencies don’t have enough budget to cover routine maintenance and repair to deal with infrastructure deterioration problems such as corrosion. According to the National Association of Corrosion Engineers, the direct cost of corrosion damage to highway bridges amounts to $13.6 billion a year. 

“The use of our proposed sensing textiles can help proactively assess the structural integrity of concrete and steel bridges from corrosion,” says Yu.

From 2014 to the present, there have been nearly 4,000 railway accidents in the country. Of these, more than 430 involved derailments and close to 450 were related to railway structural failures, according to the latest report from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis.

“Replacing the rails currently costs approximately $1 million to $2 million per mile,” notes Kurup. “Our proposed sensing textile product can be used on concrete ties and steel rails as well as inside ballasts to monitor the structural health of railroad tracks. A distributed sensing system for railroads will enable engineers to mitigate local damages through effective repair and strengthening, thereby avoiding unnecessary and costly rail replacement.”

Railroad tracks Image by Wikimedia Commons
The team’s proposed sensing textile product can be used on concrete ties and steel rails to monitor the structural health of railroad tracks.

According to Kurup, there are 473 tunnels owned by state transportation departments around the nation, along with more than 2.4 million miles of oil and gas pipes and 1.2 million miles of water pipes.

“Maintenance of underground tunnels and pipelines presents significant challenges to local governments and the utility industry. For example, the American Water Works Association estimates $1 trillion of investment is needed over the next two decades to implement much-needed repairs and upgrades,” he says.

Kurup says the team’s sensing textile will allow the states to detect damages early on, thereby preventing catastrophic failures. “In addition, our sensing system would also help to detect adverse impact to existing civil infrastructures such as buildings, bridges and rail lines that can occur in underground trenchless operations during the installation of new pipelines and tunnels,” he says.

Developing a Technically Trained Workforce  

Yu says that the development of the sensing fabrics will also create new business with the manufacture, installation and maintenance of the fabrics as well as the processing and analysis of the sensor data.

“This research project combines two traditional industries — textile and construction — to create innovative sensor and sensing system products for the aging infrastructure problem faced by all countries in the world,” explains Yu.

“We envision that this Massachusetts-based R&D effort will expand the local economy by creating new products to address a critical need nationwide, as well as strengthen the technical edge of the U.S. in today’s globally competitive market,” he says.

In terms of workforce development, the team points out that scientists, engineers, interns and co-ops at Saint-Gobain will be trained in this emerging technology. 

“At UMass Lowell, we anticipate that the project will be used to train future engineers at both undergraduate and graduate levels in civil and electrical engineering,” says Yu. “In addition, Saint-Gobain and UMass Lowell will hold training workshops designed to educate users on the value of infrastructure sensing and system capabilities.”