It takes constant research to maintain a safe, efficient, sustainable transportation system in the face of ever-growing demands for mobility. That’s the rationale behind the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research (VCTIR), a long-term partnership between the Engineering School and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).
“VCTIR is an organization that enables VDOT to understand the health of our transportation infrastructure, determine the right time to take corrective action if necessary and select the most-appropriate new approaches,” says Brian Smith, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Working together, Engineering School and VCTIR researchers conduct research on a variety of scales, from large structures and systems to individual material properties.
“Our job at VCTIR is to produce actionable information,” says Stephen Sharp, a VCTIR senior research scientist who focuses primarily on steels. “We turn to Engineering School faculty to help us generate information we can apply to increase the efficiency and reduce the costs of VDOT operations.”
Osman Ozbulut, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is conducting a number of projects with VCTIR. Working together with Sharp, they are exploring alternatives to the steel currently used for bridge girders. They are looking for an alloy that will not require the periodic and expensive maintenance the current materials require. Ozbulut is contributing to this effort by evaluating alloys that are new to structural engineering, examining such parameters as their susceptibility to fatigue.
But as William Johnson, chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, notes, “Many of the issues VDOT faces are materials problems. And the tools they need to look at these problems need to be more advanced than they were in the past.” To provide this advanced level of analysis, VCTIR has helped fund the department’s installation of two scanning electron microscopes at its Nanoscale Materials Characterization Facility. This new equipment sets the stage for even closer collaboration between VCTIR and the Engineering School.
To gain insight into the microstructure of the steels under analysis—and to determine how the microstructure contributes to their bulk properties — Sharp is working with the facility’s director, Richard White. “We do a cross section and the metallography so we can see what the microstructure looks like,” he says. By combining information from White with Ozbulut’s conclusions, Sharp will be able to determine if it will be worthwhile to test a new steel in the field.
The VCTIR–Engineering School partnership does more than help sustain the commonwealth’s transportation network and expand the Engineering School’s research agenda, important as those two goals are. “Our relationship with VCTIR impacts the educational as well as the research mission of the School,” Johnson observes. Undergraduates regularly serve as VCTIR interns, and graduate students are supported by VCTIR funding. “The great thing about our relationship with VCTIR is that it continues to grow and deepen the more we work together,” Johnson says. ”Over time, it will involve more faculty and more students.”