AASHTO Journal

House Subcommittee Explores Potential of Composite Materials for Infrastructure Projects

The House Subcommittee on Research and Technology – which is part of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology – is examining whether or not to develop standards to spur the wider use of "composite materials" in a variety of infrastructure projects, ranging from highways, bridges, and railroads to buildings and dams.

At an April 18 hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., said in his opening statement there is an "economic case" for using fiber reinforced polymer or "FRP" composites to offer "durable, sustainable, and cost-effective solutions" in a variety of infrastructure applications.

bridgeded.jpg"As the administration and Congress begin to consider how to tackle the nation's infrastructure challenges, it is important we understand what role composites can play," he said.

"Without proper design guides and data tables to harmonize standards and create a uniform guidance, the practical use of composites to build durable and cost-effective infrastructure will continue to lag," Rep. Webster added.

Hota GangaRao, a professor of engineering at West Virginia University, testified that using FRP composites can "rehabilitate our existing infrastructure at a fraction of the price of replacement."

He said that, based on successful demonstration projects in the past, composites are poised to expand into infrastructure applications such reinforcing bars for concrete, bridge decks, utility poles, repair of structures, and refurbishment of sewer/storm water pipes.

"Composites are moving into these areas due to their biggest advantage over traditional materials: durability," GangaRao noted. "Composites won't corrode or rot like conventional materials, resulting in a longer service life."

He added infrastructure is "commonly built" with timber, steel, or steel-reinforced concrete; all of which degrade over time due to natural or man-made conditions. For instance, FRP utility poles installed in the 1960's are still in use, GangaRao pointed out, while timber poles may only last 25 years.

"Other advantages of composites include light weight and factory production, resulting in products that can be shipped to a job site enabling ease and quality in construction," he explained. "Finally, composites can be used to renovate existing infrastructure, resulting in investment savings. I've been pushing for years [that] our focus should be on renovation – not replacement – of infrastructure, to realize the biggest bang for the buck."

bridgepave.jpgYet the subcommittee's ranking minority member, Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., noted in his remarks that it is "important that we don't lose sight of the strengths of traditional materials like concrete and steel."

He added that the in terms of repairing and upgrading existing infrastructure, alongside new project construction, there is a "need to have safety and design standards in place that allow engineers to choose the best material for the job [while] allowing novel and traditional materials to work together."

The setting of such standards is key for bridge and infrastructure construction, according to an AASHTO survey of 45 states conducted two years ago. That survey found that over 91 percent of state bridge engineers use AASHTO, FHWA and other "industry guidance" as to what standards to use in repair and new construction efforts, with over 55 percent noting that bridge owners have the final say in what "innovations" or other new design work is incorporated into their structures. 

Questions regarding this article may be directed to editor@aashtojournal.org.

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