Earthquake Engineering Lab Gets $12 Million

The University of Nevada, Reno tests a 110-foot 200 ton concrete bridge in its large-structures earthquake engineering lab. (Photo by Mike Wolterbeek, University of Nevada, Reno)

The University of Nevada, Reno has been awarded $12.2 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. This will fund the major portion of an expansion of the earthquake engineering lab where, for the past 25 years, researchers have conducted experiments of building and testing large scale structures and bridges to advance seismic safety.

The expanded facility will house the largest and most versatile earthquake simulation laboratory in the United States. The $18 million project also received funds from the Department of Energy to finance the initial phase of construction of the 23,000-square-foot project. When completed, the combined area of the new and existing facilities will exceed 30,000 square feet.

The University was one of only five institutions – from more than 100 applicants nationwide – that received grant money from the NIST Construction Grants Program. The project will create short-term construction jobs and have a positive long-term employment and economic impact through other agency and private industry projects.

“Strengthening research and development in the United States is critical to our ability to create jobs and remain competitive,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said. “These construction grants will help the U.S. produce world-leading research in science and technology that will advance our economic growth and international competitiveness.”

“This expansion is a major accomplishment that will make us more competitive and productive,” Manos Maragakis, dean of the College of Engineering, said. “Our facility will be unique worldwide and, combined with the excellence of our faculty and students, will allow us to have even greater contributions to the seismic safety of our state, the nation and the world.

“A good part of why we received this funding is because of the high quality work we do and the high caliber faculty. The competitive nature of this award adds significantly to the importance and prestige of this accomplishment.”

Buckle, director of the Large-Scale Structures Lab, said the expanded facility will house the University’s four large 14-by-14-foot, 50-ton-capacity shake tables that are capable of replicating, through computer software and massive hydraulically operated actuators, any recorded earthquake.

“The new building configuration will allow for a fifth shake table and more versatile use of the equipment while freeing up space for additional experiments,” Buckle said. “We have a backlog now, a long list of projects of people and agencies who want to use the lab. For example, our next big project is a 145-foot, curved, 130-ton bridge project that takes up every bit of current space, door-to-door and wall-to-wall.”

The greatly expanded research space will allow for additional experiment configurations for large-scale models of buildings, and experiments that are not possible in the existing facility, such as simulating the effect of seismic waves propagating through layers of soil under foundations.

“This will be a quantum jump in the range and complexity of experiments that can be undertaken in both new and existing laboratories, with advances in state of the art earthquake engineering that are not currently possible,” Buckle said. “Safer buildings, bridges and more resilient communities will be the end result.”

The University’s Center for Civil Engineering Earthquake Research carries out research for federal and state agencies, the private sector and non-profit organizations. In addition to highway bridges, the Center’s current research efforts include the study of non-structural components in buildings and alternative building materials.

“The earthquake research done here at the University and in this laboratory has discovered new knowledge, stretched intellectual boundaries, and at the same time provided useful research,” University President Milt Glick said. “So when there’s a bridge problem in San Francisco, they call upon our faculty to help them solve the design problem. And, when they want to design a safer building, where do they come? They come here.”

The facility supports itself financially. In the past 10 years, major research grants and contracts acquired by the Center for Civil Engineering Earthquake Research totaled $38.5 million.

“With the expansion, we can accommodate more students and their projects and more of the local construction industry will be able to use it, bringing in multi-thousand dollar specimens,” Buckle said.

Almost 20 academic, research and administrative faculty, scientists and technicians are affiliated with the Center for Civil Engineering Earthquake Research and the earthquake simulation lab. About 30 doctoral and masters students are engaged in research projects under the Center’s umbrella. Total research funding in 2009 was about $3.5 million. In its 25-year history the Center has published more than 160 technical reports that describe the results of these activities.

The University facility is managed as a national shared-use National Earthquake Engineering Simulation site created and funded by the National Science Foundation in 2004 to provide new earthquake-engineering research and testing capabilities for large structural systems. This NEES equipment site is connected to the NEES Consortium of 14 other universities.

“UNR’s earthquake research center is among the best in the nation, providing real-time data that is vital to maintaining safe roadways, bridges and buildings that can endure Nevada’s frequent seismic activity,” said Nevada Sen. Harry Reid. “Thanks to this funding, UNR will have the facility and resources needed to build on the quality work they already perform and help keep Nevadans safe.”

The project is expected to be complete in 2013.