Time-honored wisdom cautions against reinventing the wheel, but two Johns Hopkins civil and systems engineers are doing just that in their effort to investigate whether new steels recently used in critical car parts—including bumpers and the steel cage that protects drivers in a crash—can be used to create more sustainable and resilient buildings.

With funding from the National Science Foundation and a seed grant from the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute, Benjamin Schafer, professor in the Department of Civil and Systems Engineering, and colleague Thomas Gernay, an assistant professor in that department, are analyzing four new, high-performance steels for use as studs and joists in buildings, providing improved fire resistance and ability to withstand loads, as well as reducing the environmental impact.

Developed by the auto industry as part of a strategy to make cars lighter to improve handling and fuel efficiency, these so-called “advanced” steels are four times stronger than those commonly in construction today. But they also cost more to manufacture, so figuring out how to use them efficiently in buildings is a priority.

“Some benefits of utilizing these new materials include more efficient material use and lower construction and life-cycle costs. These steels also offer the potential for structural engineers and architects to create novel solutions in design and construction.”

Ben Schafer

Professor, Department of Civil and Systems Engineering

“Some benefits of utilizing these new materials include more efficient material use and lower construction and life-cycle costs,” said Schafer. “These steels also offer the potential for structural engineers and architects to create novel solutions in design and construction.”

However, a number of technical challenges need to be surmounted before these steels can be used in building construction, including developing relationship-specific models in order to provide the best recommendation to industry. The first step is to compile data on the materials themselves and how they behave under various conditions.

An expert in fire-resiliency, Gernay and his team have tested the steels to determine their responses under stress, strain, and high temperatures. His data will be combined with Schafer’s research regarding the materials’ properties at ambient temperature when formed into optimized shapes appropriate for building construction to provide a comprehensive data set.

“We’re aiming to find a material that exhibits great performance under the wide range of loading conditions encountered in building applications including heavy loads, deformations, and extreme temperatures,” said Gernay. “The ideal material will be strong enough to enable innovative architectural designs while creating lighter structures that reduce carbon emissions in transit.”

Now that temperature testing is complete, Gernay is in the process of entering the materials’ temperature data into his software SAFIR, which simulates the behavior of building structures subjected to fire. Once that is done, the data and scenarios will be available for engineers in the building industry to compare different steels against each other and make the best decision for their projects.

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