New tech to help protect bridges, other infrastructure from scour

Nov 15, 2010
The ISEP will help authorities prepare for, or minimize the impact of, events such as the failure of the levees in the wake of Katrina. Credit: Cary Caruso, North Carolina State University

Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a sensor that allows engineers to assess the scour potential of soils at various depths and on-site for the first time – a technology that will help evaluate the safety of civil infrastructure before and after storm events. Scour, or erosion of soil around structures due to water flow, is responsible for a wide range of critical infrastructure failures – from unstable bridges to the levees that gave way in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"The 'in situ scour evaluation probe' (ISEP) is the first technology that allows technicians in the field to measure the scour potential of soils without the need for excavation," says Dr. Mo Gabr, a professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the new device. "Previous technologies required engineers to take samples and process them in a lab."

Understanding scour potential is important because it can help authorities prepare for, or minimize the impact of, events such as the failure of the levees in the wake of Katrina. Scour has also been linked to approximately 60 percent of the bridge failures in the United States, as documented by the Federal Highway Administration.

"The ISEP's ability to measure scour potential at different depths helps us predict how the soil will behave in the future as a support media, as various layers of soil are eroded or scoured," Gabr says.

The ISEP will also allow end-users such as federal and state agencies and private consultants to perform scour assessment more frequently, since they will not have to take physical samples back to a lab for analysis. More testing data means researchers will have a larger data set to work with, which should help them to more accurately predict scouring rates and behavior.

The new probe uses a water jet to burrow a hole into the soil. Researchers can track the rate at which the water displaces the to determine the scour rate. Researchers can also manipulate the velocity and flow rate of the water to simulate various natural events – from normal stream flow to hurricane-induced surges.

The researchers plan to take the ISEP to North Carolina's Outer Banks later this month to help with research efforts related to dune erosion.

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More information: The paper, "In Situ measurement of the scour potential of non-cohesive sediments (ISEP)," was presented Nov. 8 at the 5th International Conference on Scour and Erosion in San Francisco, Calif.

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