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Every year, New England’s harsh winter weather takes a toll on the region’s roadways, bridges and tunnels. And the salt used to de-ice road surfaces not only damages concrete foundations and pavements, but it can also corrode steel structures and the underside of vehicles, creating costly problems for motorists, cities and states.
To address the issue, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) recently awarded a five-year, $14 million grant to a partnership of faculty and student researchers from UMass Lowell, the University of Maine, the University of Connecticut, the University of Vermont, the University of Rhode Island and Western New England University to create a regional research and development center to study ways to extend the lifespan of New England’s transportation network.
Called the Transportation Infrastructure Durability Center (TIDC), its goal is to improve the durability, resiliency and longevity of transportation infrastructure for New England through research collaboration between academia and the transportation industry.
“Working hand-in-hand with this new center will be an advisory board from state transportation departments and professional organizations to guide the group’s focus and ensure practical applications are brought to market,” says Assoc. Prof. Tzuyang Yu of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who is the principal investigator (PI) for UMass Lowell.
The researchers hope improvements in the nation’s civil infrastructure will result in lower maintenance costs for roads, bridges and cars, as well as enhanced safety, decreased traffic delays and accidents, reduced fuel consumption and reduced carbon emissions as a result of improved traffic flow.
The university’s share in the DOT funding is $535,000 for the first year, with UMaine as the project’s overall lead institution (headed by civil engineering Prof. Habib Dagher).
Yu will be joined by other UML faculty researchers, including Profs. Susan Faraji of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Xingwei Wang of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Zhu Mao of Mechanical Engineering and Ramaswamy Nagarajan of Plastics Engineering. Assisting Yu in lab research are graduate students Ahmed Alzeyadi (civil engineering), Cong Du (electrical engineering) and two new doctoral students from civil engineering who are yet to be hired.
A Pressing Infrastructure Need
According to the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), one out of every five miles of highway pavement in the country is in poor condition, and the roads have a significant and increasing backlog of rehabilitation needs.
“The U.S. has been underfunding its highway system for years, resulting in a $836 billion backlog of highway and bridge capital needs. The bulk of the backlog ($420 billion) is in repairing existing highways, while $123 billion is needed for bridge repair, $167 billion for system expansion and $126 billion for system enhancement,” states the ASCE report.
That is why the Durability Center’s goal is to advance new cutting-edge technologies that will reduce cost and improve the overall health of the region’s transportation infrastructure and that can be applied throughout the U.S., Yu says.
“Essentially, the center will develop more efficient and effective sensing, monitoring and assessment technologies for our aging infrastructure, create new construction materials for better performance, longevity and sustainability and develop new platforms for automated/connected vehicles to achieve the project’s goals of more durable transportation infrastructure and better asset and performance management,” he notes. “In other words, we will not only study conceptual strategies, but also develop technologies that are applicable in the field.”
Last year, Yu, Wang, civil engineering Prof. Pradeep Kurup and researchers from Saint-Gobain Corp. in Northborough were awarded $853,000 in funding by the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) to create textiles integrated with optical fibers and sensors. These fabrics are to be applied to underground structures such as pipelines and superstructures such as bridges to monitor their health and integrity and to detect strain or cracks in their early stages, thereby minimizing repair costs, environmental impacts and disruptions to people’s lives and businesses.
Yu says such advanced functional fabrics could play a role in the work TIDC is doing by helping to improve the safety and reliability of the transportation infrastructure. Early detection of faulty structures or failing systems could help avert disaster, he says.
“The overpressurization of gas pipelines, like what had happened recently in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover that resulted in tragic house explosions and fires, could have been prevented if such distributed sensing textiles were in place beforehand,” says Yu, who is the PI for the project with AFFOA.

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