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How to build earthquake resistant bridges on uncertain ground

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Friday, July 2, 2021, 11:03 am Press Release: University of Canterbury

After the Canterbury and Kaikoura earthquake, there was a growing interest in building more earthquake resistant bridge infrastructure in Aotearoa New Zealand. In response, researchers at the University of Canterbury (UC) have developed a low-damage solution for bridges that would do little or no damage if hit by a strong earthquake.

The research is led by Sabina Piras, a PhD student in civil engineering at UCLA and certified bridge engineer originally from the United States, under the supervision of Professor Alessandro Palermo and Associate Professor Gabriel Chiaro in the UCSD School of Engineering. The team developed an alternative earthquake-resistant solution, also referred to as “low damage,” for the design and construction of bridge infrastructure.

Current earthquake design philosophy prevents bridge infrastructure from collapsing as a result of a massive earthquake, but that doesn’t mean bridges won’t be significantly damaged, says Professor Palermo. Road closures and repairs can have a significant social and economic impact as seen in the Canterbury and Kaikoura earthquakes, bringing affected areas to a standstill and costing the economy millions.

Researchers have developed a solution that, by combining self-centering swinging bridge poles, can achieve large displacements with little or no damage compared to conventional bridge poles. The swing shaft consists of two main structural components: one or several high-strength bars that act like rubber bands to the last shaft, and several traditional steel bars that are detailed for energy dissipation and can be easily replaced if severely damaged.

“When an earthquake occurs, the shaft shakes the foundation. The joint in which the oscillation movement occurs is designed and articulated so that it can be easily repaired in a very short time,” says Byras. Repair work on the joint can take place over the course of one night, which prevents major disruption to traffic, she says, compared to current building methods that can take months or even years to repair or rebuild.

The 2016 Kaikoura earthquake had a major impact on the transportation network with damage, landslides and liquefaction affecting more than 900 bridges. After visiting Kaikōura, researchers understood the need to learn how low-damage rock solutions would perform in different soil conditions. “It’s like driving a Ferrari on the road or rough terrain; its performance will not be the same,” says Professor Palermo.

The researchers investigated the effect of different soil types on the low-damage swing shaft system and developed a new, simplified test technique to simulate this complex problem.

“The soil on which we build our infrastructure varies a lot across New Zealand, and we need to understand how additional soil movements in an earthquake affect the swaying behavior of our shafts,” Beras says.

“The majority of New Zealand bridges are built on single piles of large diameter, although large and solid, they are still subject to movements in an earthquake. Structural bridge researchers have validated the performance of low-damage vibrating bridge posts through pilot testing assuming that the foundations are stationary. However, We realized that this incorrectly predicts system behavior, and we are the first to study the effect of soil, foundation and structure interaction on low-damage vibrating bridge shafts,” she says.

The novelty of the solution depends on its simplicity of construction.

“I have worked on many different low-damage bridge systems and it appears that the main barrier to implementation has been the slightly higher cost and risks associated with this new design. I consider the Wigram-Magdala Link Bridge in Christchurch to be Tesla bridges, and I would like to see more of them,” says Professor Palermo. These seismic solutions are being implemented.”

The researchers expanded on previous research and application of post-tension swing bridge poles and developed a cost-effective solution targeting engineers and builders to start adoption sooner.

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