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Smarter Than the Average Load-Bearing Structure

July/August 1998

Progress in civil engineering today means making not just better buildings, but smarter ones. Ask Linda Hanagan, civil engineer at the University of Miami in Florida. Hanagan came to the aid of a data entry office whose structurally sound but lightweight floor vibrated significantly as people walked, causing computer screens to bounce.

To deal with the problem, Hanagan installed an experimental system that can be mounted underneath the floor. The system, developed with NSF support, includes an electromagnetic shaker about the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet. A sensor on the floor sends signals to a computer, which then causes a 66-pound mass on the shaker to move up or down, counteracting the floor's vibrations.

The solution is based on what civil engineers call damping force in proportion to the velocity of the system. In this case, and at other test sites, Hanagan's shaker reduced floor vibration to less than a quarter of the previous magnitude.

Ken Chong, program director in NSF's Directorate for Engineering, says that the United States, Japan and Western European countries are leading the way in research on smart materials and systems.


Hanagan's device is an example of what is called an active control system because it adds energy to the system. Some civil engineers worry that, if not exactly calibrated, such devices could actually contribute to destabilization. That's why B.F. Spencer, Jr. of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana is experimenting with a semi-active control system.

"With these systems," says Spencer, whose work relies in part on NSF funding, "you control the way in which the devices resist the motion of the structure. Generation of forces is not required." One example is the variable orifice damper, which works like an intelligent shock absorber. In a regular shock absorber, a piston moves back and forth in a cylinder in response to motion. This shifts fluid in the damper through a fixed orifice in a way that provides the damping effect. Variable orifice dampers respond to data from sensors placed along the structure by mechanically opening or closing the orifice through which the fluid runs, thus adjusting the rate of damping to suit the amount of motion. Such a device may extend the life of a bridge reverberating with traffic or a skyscraper buffeted by winds.


However, mechanical valves are vulnerable to weather and wear. So Spencer, along with Michael K. Sain, an electrical engineer at Notre Dame, is working with a new kind of controllable damper, one that uses a smart material called magnetorheological (MR) fluid.

An MR fluid can reversibly change from a free-flowing to a semi-solid state within milliseconds upon exposure to a magnetic field. In Spencer's damper, the piston passes through a compartment containing MR fluid. An electromagnet around the piston head responds to the motion data from the sensors by generating a greater or lesser magnetic field, changing the viscosity of the MR fluid and, thus, the rate at which the piston moves. These developments are part of a joint effort with the Lord Corporation of Cary, North Carolina.

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