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News Release 95-69

People Who Drive on Glass Bridges...

October 10, 1995

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Very soon, bridges will be made of glass. And plastic. And carbon.

Scientists and engineers around the world are working on a new generation of construction materials for bridges that will resist corrosion and last longer with less need for repair. Canada, China, Japan and Scotland are among nations that have built or are about to build bridges using polymer composites. In the near future, the suspension cables, support girders and main deck of many bridges will be made of millions of braided, woven and fused strands of composite materials cooked up in laboratories by engineers.

There's an international race to develop these materials because bridges everywhere are crumbling from the effects of weather, pollution and age, says John Scalzi, a structural engineer who directs the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Large Structural and Building Systems Program. Scalzi says the United States, which has lagged dangerously behind, urgently needs to catch up with advances in construction materials achieved in other countries for at least two reasons:

First, he says, the civil infrastructure in the U.S. is in bad shape. The Federal Highway Commission reports that 42 percent of bridges need repair and are obsolete; the cumulative repair bill by the year 2010 is estimated to reach $50 billion. New, low-maintenance materials are needed immediately to repair a long list of existing bridges in every state of the union.

Second, on the global scale, the nations with the most advanced design and manufacturing programs will dominate the world export market for the new polymer materials.

On Scalzi's desk lies a stack of 18-inch rods in various colors and shapes. They are samples of new building materials under development in university laboratories through projects underwritten by NSF grants. If the rods were made of standard metal alloys, they would weigh twice as much. Multiplied by miles of rods and cables that go into a two-to-four-lane bridge, the weight reduction means a significant contribution to the long life of a structure. Also, metal rods imbedded in concrete for reinforcement age and corrode over time from exposure to the acidic concrete and moisture collecting in the cracks, whereas plastic and glass fiber rods are expected to last 10 to 100 times longer without maintenance.

The current research in polymer composite materials grew out of earlier aerospace efforts to find radar-evading "stealth" materials, says Scalzi, "which is a perfect example of military research spinning off into unforeseen civilian uses." He says continued research into new uses for these polymers will not only lead to better bridges, roads and buildings, but along the way provide new, diversified commercial ventures for the struggling aerospace firms that first developed these materials.

Nearly 40 laboratories across the U.S. are developing and testing these new materials through programs underwritten by NSF. They include:

  • California State University at Long Beach: developed synthetic cables to be installed on a suspension bridge, and composite materials for a deck on another bridge. Contact: Joseph Plecnick, professor of civil engineering (310) 9854406.
  • Catholic University (Washington, D.C.): preparing to monitor and evaluate a new grid system it developed for a full scale bridge deck to be constructed in Washington, D.C., in 1996, using new fiber-reinforced plastic materials. Contact: Lawrence Bank, professor of civil engineering (202) 319-4381.
  • Lawrence Technological Institute (Southfield, Mich.): studying the use of glass and carbon fibers for an experimental bridge design. Contact: Nabil F. Grace, professor of civil engineering (810) 204-2556.
  • Pennsylvania State University: testing the durability and structural effects of novel polymer sheets used to reinforce damaged concrete beams. Contact: Antonio Nanni, associate professor of architectural engineering (814) 863- 2084.
  • University of Arizona: developing techniques to strengthen masonry walls and concrete columns with carbon laminates. Contact: Hamid Saadatmanesh (602) 621-2148.
  • University of California at San Diego: developing techniques to strengthen highway bridge columns by using carbon laminates to resist earthquake forces. Contact: Frieder Seible, professor of structural engineering (619) 534- 4640.
  • West Virginia University: Construction Facilities Center studies the durability of new composite materials (such as fiberglass reinforced plastic bars) and concrete under freeze- thaw environmental conditions. Contact: Hota V.S. GangaRao, professor of civil engineering (304) 293-7608.

Finally, here's an example of how this emerging technology is now in use:

E.T. Techtonics of Philadelphia, Penn., constructs and installs pedestrian and equestrian bridges using polymer technology especially desirable in remote and ecologically sensitive areas such as national parks. The technology was tested with an NSF small business grant. Contact: G. Eric Johansen, company president (800) 854-0957.




Media Contacts
George Chartier, NSF, (703) 306-1070, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2021 budget of $8.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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