Shoring Up Infrastructure with Carbon Fiber

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It is no secret that our national infrastructure is in need of some TLC. From coast-to-coast, roads and bridges are showing signs of neglect to the astonishment of a new generation of leaders. Many of these new leaders are looking for innovative solutions, including shoring up our infrastructure with carbon fiber.

One such project is currently being undertaken in North Carolina. Researchers from N.C. State are apparently working with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) on new technology that they hope will extend the lives of crumbling bridges by at least 3 to 5 years. The extra time will give the state more opportunity to fund eventual bridge replacements.

Adding Structural Integrity

A local CBS news report of the North Carolina project explains that researchers and DOT personnel are looking to shore up neglected bridges with carbon fiber supports. The report does not detail exactly what the supports look like or how they would be installed, but it is clear that adding them to weakened bridges will provide the structural integrity necessary to keep the bridges in full operation.

The idea is to keep the bridges open without having to reduce their weight limits. If the carbon fiber supports can keep the bridges open for a few years longer, that would give the state time to come up with the money to start replacing those bridges.

Assuming the plan works, it’s a good one. But it does create another potential problem. Will North Carolina leaders, satisfied with the performance of the carbon fiber upgrades, then kick the can further down the road? Will they put off replacing the bridges? There is always that possibility.

A Strong and Lightweight Material

Politics aside, shoring up failing bridges with carbon fiber makes a lot of sense. Why? Because of the properties carbon fiber brings to the table.

Salt Lake City-based Rock West Composites explains the benefits of carbon fiber as a construction material in a number of ways. First, carbon fiber has a stronger strength-to-weight ratio than both aluminum and steel. The simplest way to explain it is to say that carbon fiber is stronger and lighter than both materials.

Next, carbon fiber is not susceptible to environmental conditions that cause steel and aluminum to rust. It handles temperature changes better; it isn’t subject to damage by extreme temperatures; it holds up very well against the wind, rain, snow, and ice.

Finally, it’s easy to work with. Depending on the design of the structural supports, they can be attached to existing bridges without requiring a major reconstruction project. Carbon fiber support structures can shore up a weakened bridge with comparatively little effort required by engineering crews.

Paving the Way to All Carbon Fiber

No doubt that all eyes will be on North Carolina over the next couple years. Any success they enjoy by shoring up bridges with carbon fiber structural supports is likely to motivate other states to do something similar. Could this be a precursor to going all carbon fiber down the road?

All carbon fiber is not completely out of the question, according to Rock West. There are already some states looking at replacing old bridges with new structures made completely of the composite. Whether that actually becomes reality remains to be seen. But some pretty smart minds are already thinking about it.

In the meantime, drivers in North Carolina can thank the composites industry for providing the carbon fiber materials that will make their bridges stronger. That same material that makes airplanes lighter and boat hulls stronger will be keeping North Carolina bridges open for years to come.