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Congressman briefed on civil engineering technology

As a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and chair of the Surface Transportation Subcommittee, Congressman Tom Petri grapples with many complex issues pertaining to U.S. highways. Recently, he got a firsthand look at how researchers within the College of Engineering are also working to make the nation's roads safer, less costly and more durable.

As part of a Jan. 6 campus visit, Petri, R-Wis., spent nearly two hours visiting with faculty and staff from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, as well as industry representatives and students. Most of the time was devoted to touring labs and viewing technology under development. Presentations focused on two key areas--pavements and information technologies--and highlighted laboratory and field studies of particular interest to Wisconsin and the U.S.

Petri listens to presentation

Congressman Tom Petri (right), Assistant Dean Deanna Dietrich and Professor Steve Cramer listen intently to a presentation in a civil engineering lab. (large image)

For example, Professor Steven M. Cramer, director of the Wisconsin Structures and Materials Testing Laboratory, updated the congressman on some projects to improve the performance of concrete. One test involves mixing waste glass with the concrete poured at a Dane County parking ramp. Another project involves using waste from a Wisconsin foundry in making concrete pavements. Additionally, Cramer described the college's 100-year study on the long-term properties of portland cement. The next samples, from the year 1910, will be examined in 2010.

In the new asphalt materials research lab, Assistant Professor Hussain U. Bahia discussed his group's work to evaluate and refine modern asphalt testing systems. Currently, they are developing tools needed to design and construct asphalt pavements that perform better under extreme temperatures and traffic loads.

Postdoctoral researcher Steven Smith gave a short presentation on guard rails made with fiber-reinforced plastics. This composition is an improvement over standard steel rails in that it's lighter, easier to install and corrosion resistant, said Smith. Additionally, tests have shown fiber-reinforced plastic rails to be better at restraining vehicles. Recently, the civil and environmental engineering department hired Professor Lawrence C. Bank, who has an international reputation as a composite materials expert, to help develop the college's research in this field.

Petri inspects equipment

Congressman Petri gets an up-close look at equipment used to subject concrete samples to rapid freezing and thawing. (large image)

Petri also received an up-close look at the technology of intelligent transportation systems. Assistant Professor Bin Ran, for example, is developing an external airbag for car bumpers. It inflates just prior to a collision, minimizing both injuries and vehicle damage. Ran also studies the use of computers to manage traffic flow, and to detect situations that could require a response by police or rescue personnel.

In another computer-related area, Professor Frank L. Scarpace explained that the use of geographic information systems can reduce the costs of mapping terrain features and buildings because "you don't need to hire as many people to do the work." UW-Madison landscape architect Richard Fayram gave the congressman an update on an in-progress project to update the campus' master map, which had become quite outdated due to thousands of structural and topographical changes.

State bridges are also benefiting from college research, the legislator learned. Associate Professor Teresa M. Adams discussed her work to help Wisconsin develop and carry out a "network-level bridge management system." As part of the project, she is developing improved data collection tools and integrating databases. "Now we can recommend to the state how to adjust policies to save money," she noted.

Petri's visit was coordinated by Assistant Dean Deanna Dietrich and Associate Professors Jeffrey S. Russell and Peter J. Bosscher. They explained that each part of the tour demonstrated the college's commitment to two key goals: remaining globally competitive through research, and developing the "human capital" of technological leaders.