Chris Higgins’ life-sized bridge research provides vital insights.
OSU civil engineering professor Christopher Higgins bases his career on a part of our lives that’s easy to take for granted: the roads and bridges on which we travel every day, and on whose strength our lives depend. And Higgins is a big-time researcher — that is, the structures and materials he studies are life-size.
In his work Higgins aims to prevent tragedies like the August 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis. “We need to continue to make the investments needed to sustain and renew our infrastructure. If we ignore them, it will be just a matter of time before they fail,” says Higgins, a member of OSU’s Kiewit Center for Infrastructure and Transportation and Associate Director of the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium.
With their life-sized experiments, Higgins, along with other OSU researchers, have taken bridge research to a whole new level inside OSU’s cavernous Structural Engineering Research Laboratory. “We’re doing some things that no laboratory in the world has ever done before,” says Higgins. “For instance, we built a moving load simulator that can actually roll, acting like a truck traveling across full-size girders. We found that a moving load affects the bridge structure differently than a single load pushing at one spot.”
Some of Higgins’ other toys include a 35-ton yellow crane, rebar benders, hydraulic rams, 40,000-pound concrete beams and a gigantic environmental chamber, all residing on a concrete and steel-reinforced strong-floor that measures five feet thick inside one of the few laboratories in the country built for such research.
The reason for such extremes is that the physical properties of wood, concrete and reinforcing steel differ geometrically with size, and so do the forces that impinge upon them. There are inherent limitations to studying scaled-down models — questions about how their larger counterparts will fare in real world conditions.
Since Higgins’ arrival at OSU in 2000, he has been awarded the Lloyd Carter Award for Outstanding and Inspirational Teaching and the American Society of Civil Engineers student chapter’s Teacher of the Year Award — twice — proving that large-scale impact doesn’t always have to happen in the lab.