Large-Scale Dream

Nevada's renowned quake lab earns $18 million for expansion

9/30/2010 - By: Mike Wolterbeek and John Trent

Earthquake Lab press conference

Nevada researchers share why the lab expansion is important to the university. Video by Lee Pfalmer.

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Ian Buckle isn’t normally a professor who uses a lot of superlatives in conversation.

Since joining the University of Nevada, Reno in 1999, Buckle, a Foundation Professor of Civil Engineering, has been one of the campus’ more calm, reassuring and reasoned voices.

On Thursday, however, in describing the $12.2 million award from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to fund the major portion of an expansion of the University’s world-renowned earthquake engineering lab, Buckle topped one superlative with another during a mid-day press conference.

“This is a great day,” Buckle said. Then, flashing a grin, he amended his words with, “No, this is a momentous day.”

Great?

Momentous?

Certainly.

Thursday was a day, as Provost Marc Johnson aptly put it, of “celebration.”

The news that Buckle and the College of Engineering announced on Thursday meant that funding is now in place for an expansion for a lab where, for the past 25 years, researchers have conducted successful experiments of building and testing large-scale buildings and bridges to advance seismic safety.

The expanded facility will house the largest and most versatile earthquake simulation laboratory in the United States.

Leveraging a competitive faculty

The $18 million project also received funds from the Department of Energy last year to finance the initial phase of construction of the 23,000-square-foot project, scheduled to begin in October. When completed, the combined area of the new and existing facilities will exceed 30,000 square feet. 

“It takes many, many people to pull something like this off,” Johnson said. “It speaks volumes of the competitive nature of this university across the nation.”

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.

Manos Maragakis, dean of the College of Engineering, recalled how over the past 25 years the facility has progressed from something slightly more tangible than a dream to what it is today: “A dream come true.”

“With all of the dreams, there were moments when we thought nothing would happen,” Maragakis said, noting, however, that College of Engineering’s Department of Civil Engineering faculty – and in particular, its large-scale structures faculty – worked tirelessly to attract millions of dollars in competitive grants, and found national collaborations and consortiums across the nation to constantly improve the facility’s infrastructure, viability and reach.

Reaching critical mass

Momentum and achievement have reached such a critical mass of excellence, Maragakis said, that it was inevitable that the facility, as it stands today and even with its sterling worldwide reputation, would have to expand.

“I can tell you that (the faculty in engineering) are taking steps like I’ve never seen in my 26 years at the University,” said Maragakis, who joined the Nevada faculty in 1984.

To give the assembled audience of media, faculty, staff, student and members of the University of Nevada Foundation who gathered in the facility on Thursday an idea of how much hard work went into securing the funding, Maragakis noted that 144 letters of intent from institutions across the country were submitted, along with 125 completed proposals.

Of those, five were chosen, including Nevada’s.

“That makes this even sweeter,” Maragakis said.

Of the long-term benefits, Maragakis said: “This expansion is a major accomplishment that will make us more competitive and productive. 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 collaborative accomplishment

“A good part of why we received this funding is because of the high quality work we do and the high-caliber faculty,” Maragakis said. “But special congratulations should be extended to Dr. Ian Buckle for putting together such a competitive proposal. The competitive nature of this award adds significantly to the importance and prestige of this accomplishment.”

Buckle was quick to praise his colleagues as well.

“It’s not me, it’s not one individual,” he said of the collegial and collaborative nature that marks the relationships between the college’s six large-scale structure faculty members.

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 now 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.”

Discovering new knowledge

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 have more local construction industry use, bringing in multi-thousand dollar specimens,” Buckle said.

‘Among the best’

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 which 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.

“(The University of Nevada, Reno’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, the university 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.

“I look forward to the day when I can show you through our new facility,” Buckle said.


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