Thomas Keller, Ph.D., is a full professor of structural engineering at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and director of the university’s Composite Construction Lab (CCLab). His areas of expertise include structural design and advanced composite materials. Keller is a proponent of partnerships between universities and companies. Last fall, the CCLab completed a composite bridge deck project in Bex, Switzerland, with Swiss company 3A Composites, featured in the January/February 2013 issue of Composites Manufacturing magazine.

Thomas Keller, Ph.D., full professor of structural engineering at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Thomas Keller, Ph.D., full professor of structural engineering at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

What kinds of research are conducted at EPFL’s Composite Construction Lab?

The CCLab research mission is to make significant contributions to the development of a new generation of innovative high-performance infrastructure systems. Research interests are focused on composite or hybrid materials and engineering structures with an emphasis on lightweight structures and advanced composite materials in bridge and building construction. Current research at the CCLab focuses on five areas: material-tailored structural concepts, multifunctional concepts, system safety, connection technologies and long-term performance.

How often do you team with industrial partners on projects?

Industrial partners are involved in almost all our projects. The direct transfer of technology into practice is one of our first objectives.

What was your role in the composite bridge deck project in Bex, Switzerland?

The CCLab participated in the concept development and design and performed small-scale material and full-scale structural tests.

Why is it important for universities and industry to partner on composites projects?

Both contribute with specific, essential and indispensable skills and knowledge for the project to be successful – universities by the pursuit of scientific approaches to solve problems and industry by its experience in processing and manufacturing.

What challenges must be overcome before composites gain widespread use in infrastructure projects, such as bridges?

The current phase of material substitution – for example, mimicking the structural language of isotropic steel – must be overcome. In addition, material-tailored structural concepts and detailing have to be developed in order to fully benefit from the excellent properties of composites, and thus prevent the less advantageous properties from becoming design-dominant.

What is on the horizon for composites in infrastructure?

The development will not be fast! The overcoming of the material substitution phase of steel, from copying stone to the welded steel frame, took around 70 years. Similar for concrete: the development from copying slender steel beams to the flat slab lasted around 40 years. Taking into account the fact that the infrastructure field is moreover very conservative, I estimate that 10 to 20 years will be necessary for composites to become fully established in the new-built infrastructure field.