New Composite Bridge Showcases Sustainable Solution


On the surface, it looks like any of the thousands of small, narrow two-lane bridges found all across America.

But a new high-tech bridge in north central Tennessee is equipped with a fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) composite material bridge deck embedded with fiber optic sensors. It replaced a damaged decades-old concrete crossing which, like thousands of low-volume rural bridges across the state and nation, was rated structurally deficient and outdated.

Researchers and engineering students in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Fibers and Composites Manufacturing Facility are part of the bridge partnership. They embedded smart fiber optic sensors developed by Luna Innovations into the bridge surface during production.

These high-density sensors are being used to monitor the composite deck system over time to give critical performance and safety data, providing a sustainable solution for aging infrastructure such as bridges. In addition, wireless technology developed at UT monitors traffic counts and the response of the bridge system remotely via cloud computing.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, about 8 percent of the more than 617,000 bridges in the US are structurally deficient and need repair. FRP composites offer a low-cost, low-maintenance option, and the new structure in rural Tennessee is intended to demonstrate the benefits of composite materials for rural bridgework.

“This composite bridge has already made a positive impact on Morgan County,” said Morgan County Highway Superintendent Joe Miller, who added that county officials were looking for a low-maintenance bridge that could be installed quickly and at a lower cost than traditional methods. “We have numerous bridges within the county and hundreds across the state that are in need of repair and could benefit from this technology.”

For Morgan County, the lightweight, easy-to-install bridge comes at no cost, courtesy of the composites industry. Working together under the umbrella of IACMI—The Composites Institute, almost a dozen private companies led by Tennessee-based Composite Applications Group partnered with industry organizations and university researchers to make the composite bridge a reality.

Developed by Structural Composites Inc., the 16-by-25-foot bridge deck is engineered for high strength and is 90 percent lighter than concrete. It has two 8-by-25-foot corrosion-resistant FRP deck panels that were fabricated off-site in a controlled environment.

Because the completed bridge sections are so lightweight, they could be transported to the bridge site and installed in one day using a forklift, reducing installation time and energy costs by requiring less construction equipment for on-site preparation.

IACMI Technology Manager John Unser, who is also vice president of program and project management for CAG, said composites have been used for bridge deck applications for more than 20 years and have exceeded all performance and safety standards set by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

But when it comes to composite bridge decking, he said, many transportation departments across the country—especially those from smaller jurisdictions—are not familiar with the technology.

IACMI and its industry partners are developing a comprehensive case study based on the Morgan County bridge project, including a comparison of the total costs of a typical concrete bridge and one using an FRP bridge deck. Unser said the results will be shared with federal, state, and local officials, transportation departments, and the civil engineering community so FRP composites will become better known to them.

“Lack of durability data is one of the major barriers of the adoption of novel and advanced materials including carbon-, basalt-, or glass-fiber-reinforced polymeric composites in civil infrastructure,” said Dayakar Penumadu, the Fred N. Peebles Professor in UT’s Tickle College of Engineering and Characterization Fellow for Materials and Processing for IACMI. “This is a major obstacle for integrating new materials and structures quickly and thus requires successful demonstration as being done through this IACMI project. Bridge decks are the most damage-prone elements, and we are integrating smart sensors distributed throughout the composite bridge deck that will provide us valuable performance data for years to come.”

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