CFI backs Western effort to build safer structures

Aging structures – like bridges, roads and pipelines – that supply basic services are crumbling around us, at a considerable cost to Canadians. According to Civil & Environmental Engineering professor Timothy Newson, it’s often not just age, but the shifting ground beneath them that speeds the process.

“We have used 79 per cent of the total service life of our public infrastructure, of which more than 60 per cent is more than 40 years old,” he said. “Unfortunately, there is a shortage of knowledge related to the management and replacement of this critical infrastructure as it nears the end of its design life.”

By better understanding the mechanical behaviour of soil and rock that underpin them, however, Newson and his team are developing new approaches and technologies for managing assets related to large public transportation and energy networks. By looking at things like foundations, pipelines and ground slopes, they hope to show how geotechnical structures behave in the long-term, and how environmental stressors affect structural performance.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) has provided Newson with more than $2 million to develop a large drum centrifuge that will allow him to create scaled models of structures interacting with soil and rock. The new equipment will allow his team to look at simulations of long periods of ground shift within a short timeframe. It will also allow them to simulate wind and structural loads, large waves, earthquakes and landslides.

Newson’s efforts will help better assess risk and save money for construction companies, manufacturers and those who own related infrastructure. More than $100 billion has been spent on infrastructure replacement and repair in Ontario over the past decade alone.

Failures of geotechnical elements within the networks he’s studying have significant effects on society, Newson said. “If we do not address these problems, Canada’s built environment will suffer greatly, which will significantly lower our safety, productivity and quality of life.”