A cornucopia of nature disasters pummeled the U.S. in 2017. More recently, two devastating hurricanes caused extensive damage along the U.S. East Coast from Florida’s Panhandle to the Carolinas. According to some estimates, the U.S. will spend trillions over the next 7 to 8 years repairing all the infrastructure damage. Fortunately, composites will play a leading role in the rebuilding.
Most of the recent damage nature has done to our infrastructure has affected buildings, bridges, and utilities that were built before modern composites were widely available. So now that we are forced to rebuild, it makes sense to leave behind those older materials in any instances where they can be replaced by stronger composites. That appears to be the plan.
This past spring (2018), Congress heard credible testimony detailing the advantages of composite materials for infrastructure. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) director Joannie Chin told Congress that “advanced composites are often stronger, lighter, and longer lasting than traditional building materials, thereby offering many cost savings.” She makes a good point.
There are lots of reasons to rebuild crumbling infrastructure using composite materials. Strength and durability are just two of them, according to Rock West Composites. But it’s hard to ignore long-term cost savings. And more often than not, money is a strong motivator. Federal and state decision makers tie much of what they do to money, so offering them a way to rebuild infrastructure at a lower long-term cost is appealing.
Rock West Composites says that the initial cost of composite materials tends to be higher. That’s because composite materials are more expensive to manufacture. So where do the savings come from? Longer life.
Since composite materials, like carbon fiber, are so much stronger and more durable than traditional building materials, they also last longer. They require less maintenance too. That combination of lower maintenance costs and longer life mean spending less on keeping roads, bridges, and buildings in good working condition over the long term.
Money is a very good motivator by itself, but decision-makers are also faced with the reality that composite materials offer better resistance against nature. Once again, consider carbon fiber as a steel replacement.
Carbon fiber will withstand temperature extremes better than steel. It does not corrode, and high winds don’t bother it much. The overall tensile strength and durability of carbon fiber is such that it outperforms steel in nearly every aspect. And where it doesn’t perform as well as steel, there are other composites we can use in its place.
Moving on to utilities, hurricane winds easily topple wooden utility poles. Replacing wooden poles with FRP alternatives solves that problem. It has already been proven outside the U.S. In Grand Bahama, 2011 and 2015 hurricanes destroyed some 2,700 wooden utility poles. Not even one of the island’s 450 FRP poles was felled by the winds.
Every year we see a number of natural disasters cause significant damage to infrastructure. If it’s not hurricanes and earthquakes, it might be a round of tornadoes wreaking havoc in the Plains states. If not tornadoes, then ice storms capable of knocking out power across the Northeast and upper Midwest.
The fact remains that we are constantly in battle against nature. It is a battle we probably cannot ultimately win, but not one that we cannot better defend against. It’s clear from the natural disasters of the last two years that we can, and should, do better. It is clear that composites’ day has come.