SMASH lab destroys bridges to help build better ones

By Michael Anderson

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, May 13 2014 7:06 p.m. MDT

Utah State University students at the SMASH lab crunch pieces of bridges to better understand how long the structures can safely last, in Logan, Tuesday, May 13, 2014.

Michael Anderson, Deseret News

LOGAN — Students and professors at Utah State University are making Utah's roads safer by destroying bridges.

The USU College of Engineering Structures lab — the Systems Materials and Structural Health, or SMASH, lab — helps the Utah Transportation Center better understand how long the structures can safely last.

For five years, Paul Barr and students have been smashing and crunching pieces of bridges or large-scale bridges.

"It's the best job. It really is the best job in the world,” said Barr, director of the Utah Transportation Center.

But there's an excuse for this massive, destructive playground.

Concrete structures are put to the test with hundreds of tons in weight and pressure. Professors and students also closely monitor some bridges, such as one just south of Brigham City near 2950 South and I-15.

They can collect large amounts of data with each smash — information that's now being shared with the Utah Department of Transportation.

“We start at the end of a bridge's life. We break it, and hopefully that will help us build better bridges,” Barr said.

They can put more than 1.2 million pounds of pressure at any one point on the bridge. Engineers design a bridge as if it were in pristine condition, right from the start.

“We look at those calculations and … we break them with the maximum load that it can take. We compare them to the design values,” Barr said.

Several sensors indicate how the bridges are affected by things like heat, cold and salt.

"Age isn't the best determination of when a bridge should be replaced, so we look at the behavior of the bridge, the condition of the bridge,” Barr said.

Bridges with different materials react in unique ways and crack at varying pressure points, he said.

“By and large, with the bridges that we've been able to test, we've identified things that we can do better,” Barr said. "By and large, our bridges are performing well. They're well designed and well constructed."

The hope is that the information will help build bridges better and cheaper in the future and provide a better idea of how long they'll last.

"Some bridges, they probably do need to be replaced and they've exceeded their service life,” Barr said. “There's reasons why they need to be replaced. There's other bridges that are functioning just fine."

Barr said his team of researchers have found that some bridges can hold up longer than expected, saving taxpayer dollars that would otherwise go toward replacing them too soon.

“We have more needs than we have money to invest in to it," he said. "So can we make better use out of the money that we have by making our bridges last longer, by building better bridges in the future?"

Barr said he hopes to see more bridges monitored electronically to better understand when they need to be replaced. It's a recipe, he said, for saving the state money and keeping drivers safe.

Email: manderson@deseretnews.com

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