Materials Science Bridges the Gap between Catastrophic Event and its Root Cause

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  • 12:58PM Jul 25, 2013
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Notable catastrophic bridge collapses in Minneapolis and Washington State have garnered public attention related to the structural integrity of many of the nation’s bridges. More cause for concern is the 2013 Report Card published by the American Society of Civil Engineers which states that one in nine bridges in the United States is structurally deficient. High profile rehabilitation projects such as the Bay Bridge in San Francisco have experienced significant materials problems related to the steel rods being installed, causing massive delays and cost overruns. In these kinds of circumstances, litigation often ensues and liability can hinge on the ability to pinpoint the root cause of failure or material deficiency. Once the root cause is scientifically established, actions by various parties can be evaluated.

The core expertise required for such an investigation frequently requires materials science and structural engineering subject matter experts to work together to combine findings of the root cause failure analysis with engineering stress analysis. The path of the investigation often includes:

  • Root Cause Failure Analysis (Materials Science)
    • Scientific evaluation of failed components (steel and concrete)
    • Assessment of details of catastrophic event
    • Analysis of material fracture surfaces
    • Identification of failure initiation site(s) and collateral failures
  • Review of Bridge Design and Tolerances (Structural Engineering)
    • Comparison of design criteria and service history
      • Old bridges vs. Modern use
  • Review construction documentation, material specifications and certifications, fabrication and installation procedures, e.g., welding (Materials Science and Structural Engineering)
  • Evaluate inspection data during service life and maintenance history (Materials Science and Structural Engineering)

There can be multiple potential causes of bridge failure ranging from design and material selection to maintenance and use. While it can be challenging to de-convolute all the different technical questions in order to determine the true root cause of failure or deficiency, the roadmap to the solution is often found in examining the unique evidence provided by the materials themselves.