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There is a great future in plastics. That was the advice to the character played by baby-face Dustin Hoffman in the film "The Graduate." From babies' bottles to the container holding your lunch, plastic is just about everywhere. So what's the future of plastics now? How about something you drive your car over? From member station WKSU, Karen Schaefer reports.
KAREN SCHAEFER: Here in northern Ohio's Huron County, on a two-lane road through the cornfields, University of Toledo researcher Douglas Nims is testing a bridge. Just 17-feet long and 10-feet wide, it looks like any small bridge until you get up close.
It is plastic.
DOUGLAS NIMS: Yeah. Hit it.
SCHAEFER: That's right. It's a bridge made of plastic. Standing in the icy water in the small creek below the bridge, Nims says plastic has a lot to offer for constructing a bridge.
NIMS: Concrete is really an energy-intensive product. It merits investigation. The plastic bridge may actually be greener than a concrete bridge.
SCHAEFER: Nims says the plastic bridge made from four interlocking rectangular tubes of polymer resins reinforced with fiberglass is also getting a lot of attention.
NIMS: McDonald's, the gold arches in McDonald's want to know if they can make fiberglass golden arches. So, it's - yeah, it's been the most famous project I've been on.
SCHAEFER: Nims says the design is based on the first plastic bridge built in Kansas 12 years ago and should last 100 years. But plastic bridges are still experimental, and each one is different. So there are questions about whether this bridge can stand up to the weight of heavy farm equipment.
So Nims has wired the bridge with sensors and hooked them up to a computer. County employees are going to drive two fully-loaded dump trucks back and forth across the bridge.
NIMS: All right. We're ready for it. Push the button. All right, go.
SCHAEFER: As the first truck moves, Nims starts a computer program that will generate hundreds of data points. It's not long before he has the results.
NIMS: The data set is consistent, and it matches with what we did before. So we're happy. We have looked at this data. Now, we're just going to collect the other data sets we need for today.
SCHAEFER: County engineer Joe Kovacs(ph) is hoping this design could eventually be used to replace hundreds of similar small bridges.
JOE KOVACS: You know, if this thing works, it's like, hey, we should build a factory to build these things. So we get the quality, and we can mass produce them. We can lower the cost. And really, today, with the maintenance stuff of, you know, bridge decking falling apart, salt, wear and tear, this is a nice little place to test it for a couple of years.
SCHAEFER: Plastic bridges may prove cheaper in the long run, but the upfront cost is steep - as much as three times the cost of a concrete and steel bridge. Harry Couch is an engineer with the National Composite Center in Dayton, Ohio. He says, while the demand for new bridges made of plastic may be low, the demand for material to repair bridges is high.
HARRY COUCH: There's a lot going on in retroing bridge designed, where you actually put structural composites on the outside of structures to reinforce them. We have taken older bridge structures, for instance, and by using composites for bridge decking, you save so much weight that you can re-qualify them for another life cycle.
SCHAEFER: And as Washington considers a jobs' program aimed at building the nation's infrastructure, plastic bridges just might soon begin to play a larger role. For NPR News, I'm Karen Schaefer.
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