Change Leader: Advancing Composite Materials Assessments Into the 21st Century
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This particular webcam interview was recorded by Todd Danielson, the editorial director of Informed Infrastructure. You can view a video of the full interview at the top of this page or by visiting bit.ly/3rbOovW.
The Bureau of Reclamation, the largest wholesale water supplier and second-largest producer of hydroelectric power in the United States, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) are working to improve evaluation tools and methods for fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) composite materials used in water infrastructure applications such as pipelines, tanks and other specialized equipment.
FRP composites take advantage of the alignment of fibers in thermoplastics to improve their design. Specifying the orientation of reinforcing fibers can increase the strength and resistance to deformation of the polymer.
“Composite materials are a unique end product that’s based on two constituents,” explains Merten. “We pull those materials together, and we can come up with products that have unique properties.”
Composites often feature excellent corrosion resistance, reduced weight and other helpful properties. But as composites age in various infrastructure applications, reliable methods of assessing their condition in the field are needed. Evaluation tools and methods for concrete and steel infrastructure are well established, but FRP composite structures require new and more-advanced evaluation techniques.
To improve methods to assess the condition of existing FRP composite structure, the Bureau of Reclamation partnered with USACE and HeroX, a crowdsourcing platform, to introduce “The Imperfection Detection Challenge,” which calls on the global community of solvers to design portable devices for field assessment of composite structures. It’s a three-phase challenge with a total prize purse of $380,000.
The goal of this challenge is to develop portable tools that use non-destructive evaluation (NDE) methods to assess the condition of existing FRP composite structures, resulting in prototypes that can rapidly detect and quantify defects of interest in field settings.
“Specifically, we’re hoping to spur some innovation that makes these instruments more portable and helps us to also better characterize defects that we would be seeing in our composite structures as they age,” says Merten.
Merten explains that the Bureau of Reclamation did a technology search prior to initiating the competition, determining that the available portable technologies didn’t have the necessary combination of scan rate (speed of assessments), depth of investigation for defects of interest, and overall characterization of defect type and size needed to be able to do a strength analysis on structures at a later date. Having prior experience in prize competitions, the Bureau of Reclamation felt crowdsourcing might lead to successful results.
“We’ve been conducting prize competitions at the Bureau of Reclamation since 2014,” notes Merten. “As the years go by, we’re sort of fine tuning our craft and finding these unique opportunities to see if we can get some other people out in the industry or world to spend some time thinking about that problem and come up with creative solutions for us.”
A strength of these competitions is the wide range of participants, bringing different types of expertise the Bureau of Reclamation may not have inhouse.
“[Participants] can be quite varied from what we might expect for the traditional people working on these types of problems,” notes Merten. “It’s interesting to see the intersection or diversity of people that sign up and try to help us out. We see people coming from industry and academia, and we see people who are unaffiliated. Sometimes we’ll refer to them as ‘garage tinkerers’ or something like that.”
Although the competition no longer is accepting new entries, those interested can learn more about the competition and its participants at www.herox.com/ImperfectionDetection. The site also includes similar active challenges that creators may be interested in.