Emphasis on tech transfer paves the way for PES program's quest for national prominence

Nathan Morian in the pavements lab

Take long-term strategic planning. Add a team of dedicated and cohesive faculty. Mix with excellent home-base support and access to talented students. You get the pavement engineering and science program at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Over the past three decades, the pavement engineering and science, or PES, program has forged excellent collaborative relationships with the Nevada Department of Transportation, in particular the Materials and Maintenance Divisions, and local transportation commissions from Washoe, Carson City and Douglas counties to tackle statewide asphalt pavement issues that have had nationwide implications.

Program receives $3 million grant to help government deploy innovative technologies

In August, the PES program was awarded a highly competitive $3 million national grant to facilitate the deployment and rapid adoption of new and innovative technology relating to the design, production, testing and research of asphalt pavements in the United States.

The grant is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration and runs for five years. The grant supports the FHWA’s Accelerated Implementation and Deployment of Pavement Technologies (AID-PT) Program, which was established by Congress in 2012 to document, demonstrate and deploy innovative pavement technologies, including their applications, performance and benefits.

“This is a highly competitive grant and this award solidifies our program as the best pavement engineering program in the nation and one of the best in the world,” said Dean of Engineering Manos Maragakis. “I want to congratulate the faculty and the department for this major accomplishment, which also exemplifies the College’s commitment to excellence and national recognition.”

The program is home to one of the most advanced asphalt pavement design and analysis facilities in the world. Starting with the fundamental properties of asphalt binders, through engineering properties and performance characteristics of asphalt mixtures, and ending inside the full-scale pavement structure, the lab's facilities allow students and faculty to conduct cradle-to-grave analyses of asphalt pavements under a variety of environmental conditions and traffic loads.

Focus on tech transfer improves roads

"The goal for all technology transfer is basically to build safe and long-lasting roads at lower cost and less interruption to the public," said Peter Sebaaly, professor and director of the pavement engineering and science program.

That tech transfer takes diverse forms, from developing tools and tests that field engineers can implement to improving standards and processes in the pavements community.

"Pavement engineering and science is a unique area where the implementation is a short period," Sebaaly said. "We're talking about typically one year from the date we finish the research until the recommendations of that research end up being in agency specifications or implemented by a company."

Here's a look at three current PES projects focused on improving roads and saving money.

Investigating the impact of superheavy loads

Elie Hajj

Elie Hajj

Associate professor Elie Hajj is leading a major project funded by the Federal Highway Administration that focuses on evaluating the impact of superheavy load movements on pavements. Superheavy loads, which range in weight from anything over 250,000 pounds to loads in excess of a few million pounds, have the potential to cause damage to pavements and roadways, including any utilities running underneath the roads. Hajj and his research team have developed SuperPACK, a software tool that he is in the process of rolling out to agencies, to conduct a systematic analysis of the risk associated with allowing a superheavy load to travel over a certain stretch of roadway.

"Superheavy load movements are a vital economic necessity in the U.S. for industries like chemical, oil and defense. Agencies are commonly faced with great challenges when approving movements of a few million pounds and deciding on mitigation strategies," Hajj said. "SuperPACK is quite a unique tool that will allow agencies to undertake a comprehensive investigation before allowing such a superheavy load movement."

The software, which outputs a cost allocation analysis that agencies can use to determine the permitting fee for superheavy loads, should be of interest to both government agencies and industry, Hajj said. The existence of the tool will give applicants the ability to preview the risks associated with their load and make cost-saving adjustments.

"From the agency perspective, a permit fee structure associated with superheavy load movements can be developed based on the damage introduced to the pavement," Hajj said. "But at the same time, industry can use SuperPACK to explore different axle and load configurations to reduce pavement damage and attributable cost. So it would be a win-win situation."

Streamlining processes for industry

Adam Hand

Adam Hand

Adam Hand, associate professor of civil engineering, is currently leading a multi-year project funded by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program that seeks to improve the process by which state agencies validate and accept construction materials. Federal regulations require such materials to be tested to ensure they meet quality specifications, but existing processes for doing so are cumbersome, leading to wasted time, money and material as well as the potential for errors and shortcuts in testing, according to Hand.

"Our goal is to make it more easily implementable but not compromise the statistical power of the validation process," Hand said. "It's actually a very, very important project for the asphalt industry."

Hand has years of experience dealing with implementing regulations from the contractor's point of view, most recently as vice president of quality for Granite Construction Inc., where he oversaw product development and quality for Granite's subsidiaries. Hand knows from experience how delays in testing and validation can add up for companies.

"If you're producing 2,000 tons a day, and it takes a week to get an answer, 14,000 tons is at risk, and it's $100 a ton. That's millions of dollars and you don't know if it's going to be accepted," Hand said. "So that's the practical piece. How can we manage the risk so the agency is assured that it's getting the product that it's paying for and also so that the contractor is getting paid for a product if it is acceptable?"

That practical perspective, Hand says, is often missing from engineering classes focused on technical topics, and it's something he's designing his courses to include.

"I think having industry experience really allows you to integrate what's important to industry into the classroom," Hand said. "I just gave an exam and put some questions on it about the cost savings associated with using recycled materials. Students need to understand what the cost implications are and what the environmental benefits are so that they can rationally come up with a process to move sustainable technologies forward."

Training pavement personnel across the West

Peter Sebaaly

Peter Sebaaly

Another avenue for technology transfer comes in the form of trainings and certifications for field engineers. In particular, the University, in cooperation with the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT), leads the way in training personnel in pavement preservation, which has been a research focus in the program for many years.

"Pavement preservation is when you have a good pavement and you think it will start going downhill within a couple years. You catch it early and you preserve it," Sebaaly said. "It's like changing the oil in your car. You want to do that to preserve the engine. If you wait till the engine starts smoking, that's too late."

Currently, NDOT is the only agency requiring pavement preservation personnel and contractors to be certified, but Sebaaly hopes other western states will join Nevada in requiring or encouraging the certification, which lasts anywhere from three to five years.

"People at NDOT in the pavement preservation area are very progressive," Sebaaly said. "They're very pro-technology and technology transfer. It's good to take the lead. We are in the process of establishing the Western Pavement Preservation Center to train and certify pavement preservation contractors and personnel throughout the western region of the U.S."

Graduate students fuel program research

As the program has grown in recent years, it has expanded its breadth and depth, and that also has paid significant dividends in the area of graduate education.

"We have a very unique set of courses that we offer here," Hajj said. "We offer 10 graduate courses tailored specifically to pavement engineering and science. We cover material design and production, pavement maintenance and rehabilitation, pavement design and management, as well as pavement construction, so a student that goes through our program will get exposed to all aspects of pavement engineering and science."

It's a point of pride for Sebaaly that the majority of research in the pavement engineering and science program is done by graduate students. The program, which has anywhere from 12 to 17 graduate students in a given semester, offers full funding to all its accepted students.

"A program like ours serves industry," Sebaaly said. "We educate our students through the large number of courses, we train them through research and then we send them to industry. That's what I call true technology transfer, because you transfer the engineers with the technology."

Sebaaly envisions continued growth for the program. Pavement engineering and science is often a small sub-discipline, and Sebaaly estimates that less than 10 percent of undergraduates majoring in civil engineering are exposed to pavement engineering, in contrast to more well-known areas of emphasis such as structural engineering or environmental engineering.

Even still, Sebaaly lights up when asked why students should consider a career in pavement engineering.

"Pavement is everywhere you go," he said. "If you add them up, there's over 4.5 million miles of paved roads in the United States, and pavements are not built forever. Buildings last 60, 70, 100 years. Bridges last longer, but pavement, at most you're going to get 20 years out of it, so it's a continuous process. And the field is always evolving, because the material is always changing. So the field is always dynamic."