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$4.2 Million Investment from NSF Boosts Hazards Engineering Research at UT Austin

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A team of UT Austin earthquake experts using T-Rex to shake a bridge in New Jersey as part of a shared-use project with experts from Rutgers University.

January 13, 2021

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $4.2 million grant to the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas (UT) at Austin to support research that aids in the design of buildings and infrastructure that can better withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, storm surges and other natural hazards.

The grant is part of the phase 2 Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) program. The five-year program will provide a network of shared-use, state-of-the-art, experimental research facilities located at seven universities across the country.

At UT Austin, the grant will continue support for NHERI@UTexas, an experimental facility that operates large mobile shaker trucks. NHERI@UTexas is led by Professor Kenneth H. Stokoe II and his team, including professor Brady R. Cox, assistant professor Patricia Clayton, and professor Robert Gilbert.

NHERI@UTexas will advance new methods of earthquake, wind and water hazards research and will have three main focus areas: subsurface imaging, soil characterization and structural evaluation. The key pieces of equipment for this research are NHERI@UTexas’ large, one-of-a-kind mobile shaker trucks called Liquidator and T-Rex. With these mobile shakers, the researchers plan to apply advanced imaging techniques, similar to those used in health care, to image the near-surface of the earth and retrieve engineering design parameters. The information will be used to create computer models that can identify weak spots in levees that could potentially fail in the event of a large earthquake or hurricane.

Additionally, the researchers plan to uncover knowledge about how different soils and foundation systems respond to dynamic loading (forces that change or vary with time), a key to understanding how buildings and infrastructure may perform in an earthquake or extreme wind storm.

The team will also use the large shaker trucks to dynamically test structures in different parts of the U.S. These experiments will not only assist in the design of future infrastructure, but could also be used to assess the strength of existing bridges and buildings and predict their life expectancy. The resulting assessment could help city, state and federal officials and policymakers plan for future infrastructure repairs and determine funding priorities.

Also part of the NHERI program, NSF is continue funding a $15.5 million cyberinfrastructure research effort, called DesignSafe, led by Cockrell School Professor Ellen Rathje. UT Austin researchers will develop a software platform, data repository and tools for researchers to advance hazard-resistant design that will improve the safety of people and property.