News and Press Releases
09 February 2018
Research on Biologically Inspired Columns for Next-Generation Accelerated Bridge Construction using low-carbon composites

A number of pioneering research projects at the University of Southampton have been awarded funding as part of a £6.6 million investment by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) into the future competitiveness and creativity of the UK economy. Southampton had five of the 28 successful projects confirmed and includes Dr Mohammad Mehdi Kashani’s Structural and Earthquake Engineering - SPINE: Resilience-based Design of Biologically Inspired Columns for Next-Generation Accelerated Bridge Construction

The aim of this research is to construct a new resilience-based bridge design and construction, inspired by the mechanics of the human spine. The new bridge column will be manufactured off-site and assembled on the construction site, demountable, constructed using low-carbon composite materials, extremely durable against environmental threats, and resilient to dynamic and extreme loadings (e.g. high-speed trains and abnormal traffic).

A resilience-based design approach plays an important role in the design of new bridges and other structures. The structural elements of bridges are often directly exposed to the environment without any protection. Even though life-cycle and sustainability criteria have been incorporated in new design guidelines, there is still no design and construction technique that can fully address the future demands of a resilient and sustainable transport infrastructure. 

The aim of this research is to produce innovative and transformative engineering solutions for a durable, low-maintenance, low-cost, and demountable accelerated bridge construction technique, which is resilient to environmental threats, and natural hazards. The solutions will include a completely new resilience-based bridge design approach and biologically inspired composite columns for next-generation accelerated bridge construction.

Towards this goal, this research will construct an innovative composite bridge column, which is inspired by the mechanics of the human spine. In the human spine, intervertebral discs provide flexibility, dissipate energy from the movements of the human body, and absorb and transmit forces without damaging the vertebrae bones. The proposed spinal bridge column will be constructed using precast composite segments (the 'vertebrae'). A new smart composite material will be developed and used in between of these solid composite segments (the 'intervertebral discs'). This will keep the vertebrae from rubbing against each other, transfer the shear forces through friction, absorb the impact due to the rocking of vertebrae, and provide mechanical damping under dynamic loading. Finally, the vertebrae and intervertebral discs will be tied together using an unbonded composite post-tensioning tendon (the 'longitudinal ligament'), to provide self-centring mechanism in the column when subjected to lateral force. 

In this 24 months research, the underlying science of the new spinal column will be investigated through experimental testing and numerical modelling. During the entire duration of the project a series of review meetings, short visits to academics as well as industry partners, and an international workshop will be organised. This interaction is deemed vital for the co-development of new concepts, the transfer of know-how and the resilient and sustainable accelerated bridge construction.

Transport infrastructure has a significant impact on the quality of people's everyday life. The new resilience-based bridge design, spinal columns, and accelerated bridge construction technique that will be developed in this research, will provide a means to the next generation of resilient and sustainable transport infrastructure (the key impact). This is a major requirement as our national transport infrastructure approaches the end of its design life and does not meet the future demands. Therefore, we urgently need to upgrade our transport infrastructure, and adapt it to future demands as well as environmental impacts due to climate change. More specifically the expected impacts of this research will include:

Contributing to UK economy and society: The outcomes of this research will help civil engineering industry by developing innovative spinal composite bridge columns for next-generation accelerated bridge construction, which is also resilient to environmental threats and natural hazards. This can be directly used in construction of new bridges and replacing ageing, and often structurally deficient, bridges that are approaching or already reached the end of their service life. This will help reducing the direct and indirect construction cost, reducing the maintenance cost of the new bridges, and make the transport infrastructure resilient and sustainable. As a result, downtime in infrastructure networks will be minimised, the safety will be improved, and tax payers' money will be saved.

Strengthening UK competitiveness: This programme will also strengthen the UK's civil/structural engineering sector. This is important in the face of the fierce global competition and the current economic climate. The outcomes of this research will provide the UK engineers with novel solutions and tools for design and construction of structures around the world in a time-efficient manner. The new resilience-based bridge design, the innovative spinal columns, and the new accelerated bridge construction technique will have a large international market, with the UK engineers taking a lead to the benefit of UK plc. 

Ensuring UK leadership in engineering: The dissemination activities that will accompany this research programme (see Pathways to Impact) will ensure the international visibility of UK academia. This will maintain and increase the UK's leading position in engineering and will indirectly generate business for UK entities (companies, industries, consultancy firms, etc.).

Creating new skills: To ensure a rapid transition from leading edge research to practical deployment, I will work closely with my industry partners. This will have a significant impact in forging closer links with industry leading to support for my PDRA and PhD students, and help to establish my team as a global centre of excellence in resilience-based design of transport infrastructure. In addition, it has the potential that a series of companies and bridge owners (e.g. Network Rail and Highways England) to adopt my approach, and act as promoter to the wider community.

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