DHS searches for safer bridges

Published 17 September 2007

DHS, Army Corps of Engineers look for ways to make bridges more terror-resistant; advances in steel and reinforced concrete to be explored

Bridges fall down becasue of structural problems, as the recent I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis shows, but they can also be an attractive target for terrorists. A terrorist, for example, may set off a series of bombs to weaken the cables and the key structural connections of a major city bridge, and do so during rush hour. A bit difficult to do, but thinkable. Indeed, for a very short while, the possibility of sabotage was examined, then dismissed, in the case of the I-35 West bridge collapse. DHS’s Science & Technology Directorate is looking to scientists and engineers for the security technologies of tomorrow. What if one day we could not only guard bridges but fortify them — for example, what if the cables and connections on bridges could be shielded with protective sleeves or covers, making them nearly impossible for the villains to penetrate?

This is the goal of the Directorate’s bridge-strengthening research. In partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’s Engineer Research and Development Center, the Directorate’s Infrastructure and Geophysical Division is testing current bridge designs and investigating advances in steel and reinforced concrete to explore whether such shields could work. The first step would be to determine which bridges and materials are most vulnerable, says Stanley Woodson, who oversees the project at the Center’s Geotech and Structures Lab. A major focus, he says, are the cables and the support columns — or towers — which are used in the cable-stayed design of bridges. Unlike the cables of a suspension bridge, which are attached from tower to tower, the cables in a cable-stayed bridge are connected directly to accessible points along the horizontal bridge deck. “In controlled experiments, Woodson’ss team has been recreating the forces holding up these bridges and blowing up samples of their cables using various kinds of explosives,” say Dr. Mary Ellen Hynes, director of the research. “They then use sophisticated software to analyze the impact and results.” “We tension the cables just like a real bridge,” Woodson explains. “We want to see just how they’d react in an actual terrorist event.”

The next step will be more complicated, says Woodson: Determining what material would suffice for another layer of protection, and what form it should take. “We’re looking at the practical as well as the innovative,” he says, recognizing the potential for high costs. By the end of 2008, Woodson and his team will be imitating concrete bridge towers and subjecting them to the same explosive testing.