Students Test Housing Materials Against Simulated Earthquake

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Professors and students at George Washington University are using a testing lab to see what kind of materials can stand up in an earthquake, and what materials may fail. Researchers hope to use the testing to help identify what can be used for rebuilding in quake-ravaged places like Haiti. Host Michel Martin talks with Pedro Silva, associate professor at George Washington University's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, about his research and work with what's called the "shake table."

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, her mother was jazz icon Nina Simone. But she has become a groundbreaking artist in her own right after a stint in the Air Force. The singer/songwriter Simone is with us and she talks about her remake of her mother's signature piece "For Women." You can hear it in the new movie "For Colored Girls."

But first, a few more minutes on efforts to aid the rebuilding effort in Haiti. As you just heard, the efforts to help Haiti rebuild are not going nearly as fast as most people would like. A lot of people are trying to help.

At a testing facility in Ashburn, Virginia, professors and students from George Washington University can see just how well construction materials can hold up in a quake with the help of what's called a shake table: a 10 foot by 10 foot metal structure that moves in six different directions, mimicking the movements of a tremor. The shake table is just one of a number of high tech testing efforts featured in the latest edition of the Washington Post Magazine.

Pedro Silva is the researcher at the center of the shake table experiment. He's an associate professor at George Washington University Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. He's with us now in our studio in Washington. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Professor PEDRO SILVA (Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, George Washington University): Hello.

MARTIN: How did you get interested in this kind of research?

Prof. SILVA: Well, since I was an engineer working in California, and then watching the devastating effects of earthquakes. And that kind of propelled in me the interest to learn more about it, how to make structures to be more efficient resistance to the effects of earthquakes. Then I did my PhD at University of California San Diego, where I did a lot of large scale experimental testing to study how to make bridges and reinforced concrete structures more resistant to the effects of earthquakes.

MARTIN: So, what does the shake table do?

Prof. SILVA: Well, the shake table basically uses Newton's second law. Force equals mass times acceleration. So we put a structure on top of the shake table and then we apply an acceleration at the base of the structure. So as you mentioned, applying these acceleration with six degrees of freedom, we can mimic basically the response of the ground. And then that transfer of acceleration would then give us the similar effects as you would a structure would have during a real earthquake.

MARTIN: And one of the things that you're trying to do to keep it real is not just experiment with materials that just are sort of randomly available, but ones that people would actually use and be able to acquire.

Prof. SILVA: Correct. So this research that I am currently ongoing is a grant from the George Washington University, and with this grant we are going to build a structure that mimics what you will see in the Caribbean islands having exactly the same deficiencies that we saw during the Haiti earthquakes.

And then we are going to investigate typical materials that are in land fields and then extract those materials and build, you know, structural components that somebody can apply to the house to make the structures more resistance to the earthquakes.

MARTIN: One of the issues in Haiti, as I understand it is it's not just the structures themselves, but the deforestation that is, you know, that goes back to the founding of the country that when Haiti literally bought its freedom from France, that they had to sign away, you know, huge swaths of forest, which has led the earth to be much more unstable than it would be if it were, say, even the same structures in another venue would not have achieved the same results. I'm just wondering, how do you compensate for or account for that?

Prof. SILVA: Well, correct. So, Haiti does definitely have that component of instability which is the deforestation, which tend to reduce the available materials for building structures that can actually make them better resistance to the earthquakes. But, also, we cannot forget that Haiti is part of that Caribbean islands that are - can be subjected to just about any type of earthquakes - from the strike-slip, which was the earthquake that hit Haiti, from subduction earthquakes, which can actually produce larger magnitudes of earthquakes.

And that region is within a very complex system of faults where the two plates, the North American and American plate, come together and really form their geological instability. So it's not just Haiti, I think, that we should be looking into it, but that whole zone where we could definitely, you know, look at better ways to retrofit these structures for, basically, all the islands. And that's that research that I'm working right now, in collaboration with some other researchers.

MARTIN: I was, you know, it's such an unfair question to ask someone who's doing research, but I was wondering when you think the results of the work might be usable. Because on the one hand, you know, it's, you know, you can see the need right now. And on the one hand, that must make the work exciting. On the other hand, that has to put - maybe it's me - but a level of pressure on you that might not be the case if this was just a sort of purely a theoretical exercise.

Prof. SILVA: Well, that's correct. And I think that is because that even if the research is successful, we do need to worry about how to implement these type of programs. So from a business perspective, it needs to be somebody's going to take upon these research idea to create a business, it has to be a viable business. And that's why I think this research has a great potential for implementation because we are going to work with companies that can potentially see a benefit, in the long run, economical. And that's reason does do - that will benefit from having social economic program that brings everything together, creating new business opportunities, working within recycling facilities. So it can be a big revitalization process.

MARTIN: When, but - forgive me. I know I'm pushing you in an area which you're not to go to, but when do you think these efforts might bear fruit?

Prof. SILVA: Well, this research program is a two-year program, so my goal -and with my colleagues working with me on this research - is to, at the end of two years, we would have something that we can now take to companies to say please help us to make the next leap forward. And so within two years, we hope to have something in our plate.

MARTIN: And I- just very briefly, if you would. We only have about a minute left. I understand that fruit is another material that you're actually looking at?

Prof. SILVA: Yes. They have been doing research on this in New Zealand, where they have used the mango.

MARTIN: Mango?

Prof. SILVA: Mango. Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm thinking coconuts or something a little tougher.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SILVA: Because it has a lot of fiber. So if you have a lot of fibers, they are - of course, bear in mind, this is not to resist, you know, a massive earthquake. But this can be put in with - together with other products. So researchers have been, you know, very forward in other parts of the world.

MARTIN: All right. Well, I'll have to look at my fruit salad in a new way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, thank you.

Pedro Silva is an associate professor at George Washington University, Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, where he's testing materials to build better structures that can better survive earthquakes. And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Thank you so much for coming.

Prof. SILVA: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now if you want to read the piece describing the research in its entirety, it's called "The Quake Faker," and the piece is written by Karen Houppert, and we hope you can read it. You can find a link on our website, just go to npr.org. Go to Programs, then TELL ME MORE. My commentary is also there this week, and an extended version of my interview with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

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