Last week, the University of Southampton (UK) announced that a number of pioneering research projects at the university will be awarded funding as part of a £6.6 million investment by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) into the future competitiveness and creativity of the UK economy. One of those projects entails development of resilient and durable bridge pier inspired by the anatomy of the human spine.

The new bridge pier will be based around precast composite segments without any reinforcing steel designed to act as the vertebrae. In between these solid segments will be “intervertebral discs,” constructed from a new “smart” composite material being developed by the team, which will prevent the vertebrae from rubbing against each other, transfer shear forces through friction, absorb impacts caused by the rocking of the vertebrae and provide mechanical damping under dynamic loading.

Everything will be tied together at the end by a composite designed to act like the spine’s longitudinal ligament, which will pull the piers back into their central position if the bridge is subjected to lateral forces.

Unlike conventional composites formed of layers, which can delaminate, the new material will consist of entangled polymer fibers. Entangled materials based on titanium or metal alloys are already used in aerospace for vibration damping.

“We want to come up with something similar but using a polymer base,” said Dr. Mohammad Mehdi Kashani, the leader of the project.

Kashani says that current bridges suffer from corrosion caused by salt spreading during the winter months, particularly in colder countries such as UK, US, Canada, and Japan, and therefore require expensive maintenance. They also tend to crack when exposed to dynamic loading from a high speed train or an earthquake. He believes this new bridge can be easily built in only two days and demounted at the end of its life, while the design can endure earthquakes and damage caused by traffic and cold weather.

For the next two years, the underlying science of the new spinal column will be investigated through experimental testing and numerical modeling. During the entire duration of the project, a series of review meetings, short visits to academics as well as industry partners, and an international workshop will be organized. For more information, visit http://gtr.rcuk.ac.uk.