Using shotcrete to make tunnels withstand terrorist attacks

Together with external partners, his team has now realized a shotcrete with 140 kilogram steel fibers per cubic meter, and they added three kilogram of synthetic fibers on top of that.

“Everyone with whom we discussed this in the run-up had said: you’ll never pull it off. And indeed, we were going to throw in the towel,” Vollmann says.

About to give up, the group had one last brainwave: air. The researchers foamed up the concrete until the mixture contained approx. 20 percent air bubbles. “We assume that this process generates a ball-bearing effect of sorts,” says Vollmann. “The fibers presumably roll over the air bubbles, and everything is thus rendered smoother.”

Accordingly, the concrete can be pumped through a hose and sprayed through a nozzle despite its high steel-fiber content. The air must not remain in the mixture, however, because it would reduce the strength of the concrete.

Therefore, the RUB team built in a defoaming mechanism.

For the spraying step, the concrete is pumped through a nozzle. There, a substance is added by default which accelerates the solidifying process. “Otherwise, the concrete would be much too liquid and, at the required layer thickness, would slide off the wall,” explains Vollmann. “We have simply added a defoaming agent to the accelerating agent.”

Small-scale lab experiments had shown that the defoaming agent takes effect instantaneously and extracts air from the concrete within the fraction of a second. This effect was verified on the large scale, following experiments with a shotcrete robot.

The Institute for Tunneling and Construction Management and the Institute for Construction Material Technology operate a shotcrete test rig. Its heart is a reprogrammable robot manufactured by the company “Kuka,” which is commonly deployed for welding cars. At the RUB campus, the robot applies shotcrete — layers with a thickness of several centimeters onto traditional concrete. The engineers conveyed a portion of the thus manufactured slabs to Leipzig, for fire tests in the material testing facilities there.

Other slabs were tested by project partners from the Ernst-Mach-Institut at Fraunhofer in Freiburg in controlled explosion tests, in order to find out the shotcrete’s resistance capacities. By deploying shotcrete, they were indeed able to maintain up to 60 percent of the remaining load-bearing capacity of the construction that was to be protected. To compare: in the same experiment setup, the remaining load-bearing capacity of unprotected concrete amounts to a mere 20 percent.

The release notes that it is not possible to apply the new shotcrete to all structures or to render them safer by another method. The costs would be much too high. Rather, it is necessary to determine which tunnels and bridges in Germany are particularly at risk. In a project managed by the Federal Highway Research Institute, Vollmann’s team investigated this issue together with other partners. The group analyzed which structures are crucial for a traffic infrastructure to work and which constructions are particularly vulnerable to fire or explosion damage. They developed a process which can be used to compile such a ranking of critical structures, the results of which cannot, however, be published for security reasons.

“Our structures are actually more robust than we’d assumed,” says Vollmann. “Still, with enough explosives, one could theoretically cause any building to collapse.”

The ranking is now going to help decide for which structures measures are going to be implemented next to boost security.