Aircraft Materials Make for Better Bridges

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Wednesday, August 27th, 2014
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Engineers in the UK are turning to composite materials used for the construction of modern aircraft wings to build more durable bridges.

A new road bridge near Bristol is the first in the UK to be built from hi-tech materials normally reserved for the production of aircraft wings.

The bridge, which crosses the River Frome on Church Road in the village of Frampton Cotterell, was pre-built at the National Composites Centre in Emersons Green before being transported by truck to its current location and inserted into place from above by means of a crane.

The pre-fabrication of the bridge at a separate location served to greatly facilitate the construction process, dramatically reducing the amount of disruption to the route by removing the need for protracted on-site building work. Authorities expect Church Road to be re-opened to traffic as soon as early September, mere weeks after the bridge’s installation.

The chief distinguishing feature of the new bridge, however, is not the ease of installation conferred by pre-fabrication but the materials employed for its construction. The bridge is made from a hi-tech composite material the low mass and resilience of which have heightened the performance of modern aircraft by serving as a key ingredient for their wings structures.

South Gloucestershire Council teamed up with Sinclair Knight Merz, international design and engineering consultancy Atkins and bridge specialist CTS Bridges to develop this breakthrough form of infrastructure.

“The new bridge at Frampton Cotterell is at the forefront of an exciting new development in civil engineering techniques,” said James Henderson, senior consultant at Atkins. “The strength and lightweight nature of composites have allowed commercial aircraft to fly further, faster and more economically.”

Henderson said Atkins hoped to apply the critical advantages possessed by such cutting-edge composite materials to the most time-honoured forms of civil engineering.

“Having gained this knowledge and expertise, we wanted to see where else the technology could be used to deliver similar benefits,” he said. “Our initial idea was to look at bridge building, a form of engineering which has largely been using the same methods for centuries.”

According to Henderson, use of composite materials to build the bridge at Frampton Cotterell is expected to reduce maintenance costs by at least 50 per cent compared to traditional concrete or steel structures, due in part to the enhanced durability of the completed structure.

Another benefit includes the ability to build bridges with more innovative and outlandish designs by permitting the creation of longer spans between legs and other supporting structures.

Brian Allinson, chairman of the planning, transportation and strategic and environment committee of South Gloucestshire Council, cited enhanced convenience of installation and durability at the key reasons behind its decision to adopt the technology.

“One of the reasons why we chose this advanced technology  [was that] by manufacturing bridge off site we have been able to speed up the whole installation process,” he said. “We will also benefit in the long term from the materials used int he new bridge which are more resistant to decay and corrosion than other materials, and will require less maintenance, delivering excellent value for money.’

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