JULY 13, 2021 — Editor’s note: This article is the second in a three-part series about cutting-edge structural engineering research taking place at UTSA. Read the first article in the series here, and the third article in the series here.
To be a world-class research institution, you need world-class laboratory facilities. In part two of our series on UTSA’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UTSA Today takes a collective look at the preeminent resources available for faculty and students in their pursuit of research excellence.
“Be Bold” is the UTSA mantra and the College of Engineering and Integrated Design (CEID) is certainly living up to that declaration. JoAnn Browning, dean of CEID, encourages her structural engineering faculty to use their talents to positively impact the industry for the benefit of society.
“I think that translates into using our resources at UTSA to develop engineering principles that help make structures safer and more resilient, especially during a natural disaster,” said Adolfo Matamoros, professor and Peter T. Flawn Chair in the UTSA Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Much of the research conducted in support of this aspiration takes place at the university’s Large Scale Testing Laboratory (LSTL), under the direction of Wassim Ghannoum, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. This 15,000-square-foot facility supports a wide array of research initiatives, including providing robust support for geotechnical and structural engineering projects like bridges. The lab also creates the building components and new materials needed for increasingly complex developments.
A laboratory this size gives UTSA the capacity to test large-scale systems and components that span up to 70 feet. The laboratory has dual cranes with 30-ton capacity to load, unload, and transport heavy specimens. A large-capacity hydraulic power unit provides the ability for civil and structural engineering researchers to simulate a wide-range of issues including high-cycle fatigue, earthquakes, and blast loads. The LSTL has a 40-by-80-foot reaction floor to test loads of up to four million pounds of force, making it the strongest reaction floor in the nation.
“In terms of physical capabilities, we have one of the best structural testing laboratories in the country,” Ghannoum said. “The pandemic limited our access and use of the Large-Scale Lab, but we're in the process of strengthening our equipment so we can do different types of tests and have testing equipment that is commensurate with the capabilities of the lab.”
A key personnel addition to the LSTL is a full-time technician who will ensure students are following safety procedures when using the lab equipment. The technician is also charged with maintaining all of this sophisticated testing equipment to minimize downtime.
“The research capabilities at the Large Scale Testing Laboratory give our students excellent opportunities to develop skills that prepare them for their careers in academia or in private business,” Browning said.
UTSA is also investing in additional hands-on experiences for its engineering students. Located on the ground floor of the recently completed Science and Engineering Building is the Makerspace, which offers a unique collaborative environment for students working on an array of projects. The 17,000-square-foot facility boasts a wide array of tools so students can maximize their experiential learning opportunities. Engineering essentials include a meeting space, a design studio, and an extensive machine shop. The 3D printing room contains multiple machines that print everything from basic plastic designs to intricate metal configurations.
“When the campus returns to normal operations, our engineering students will spend countless hours in the Makerspace working with their senior design teams and presenting to their project sponsors,” Browning said. “This unique learning area is designed to give our engineering students every opportunity to think big and succeed in completing their projects.”
The Makerspace in the recently completed Science and Engineering Building features a 3D printing room that includes machines such as these FormLabs 3D printers.
Some of the most important structural engineering advances, however, are coming from sources other than traditional testing equipment, such as computer simulations. Arturo Montoya, an associate professor with dual appointments in the Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Mechanical Engineering uses super computers to predict what impact various events like earthquakes could have on structures. Montoya is also doing this type of research for NASA in their beginning stages of developing human habitats for the Moon and Mars.
“My expertise is in computational mechanics, so I use computers to analyze structures,” Montoya said. “I take a structure and break it into little pieces. You have to make computations at all those little elements. That's what makes it time consuming, but actually, it's the only way to get a reliable solution for that problem.”
Montoya’s work requires massive processing capabilities that only a super computer can handle. UTSA has one such computer at the Advanced Visualization Laboratory, or VizLab. Known as Shamu, the computer utilizes a mix of high-powered servers to process computational nodes that produce a visual simulation for how a structure may perform under duress from high winds, an earthquake or a storm surge.
“The calculations are complex and tend to be very time consuming,” Montoya said. “It’s a minimum of five days to create a simulation that lasts for a minute or less. I’ve had some simulations take 21 days to process. It’s essential to have access to this type of computational power to conduct the research we’re doing for UTSA and special projects.”
To ensure UTSA is providing faculty and students the computing horsepower a leading research institute requires, Shamu is being replaced. The university’s Research Computing Support Group (RCSG) will soon formally introduce Arcticus, or Arc for short. Named after the red giant star in the Northern Hemisphere of Earth's sky, Arc has many new features to enhance speed and reliability over Shamu. It is currently in beta testing mode and is targeted to be available to faculty and students in fall 2021.
Montoya values the skilled maintenance support the RCSG provides to keep a super computer in operation. It’s one of the factors that puts UTSA at an advantage when competing against other universities for research grants.
“It's essential to have a support structure to be successful in research,” Montoya reiterated. “Every proposal requires you to list equipment and your facilities. If you don't have excellent equipment, facilities and support, it plays a factor in whether we’re successful in obtaining research funding.”
Investments in super computers, the Makerspace and the untapped potential of the Large-Scale Testing Laboratory factor into UTSA’s success attracting the best faculty, students and more research projects. For example, in August 2020, the university welcomed renowned researcher Arturo Schulz. He joined UTSA from the University of Minnesota to become chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Robert F. McDermott Distinguished Chair in Engineering.
Top faculty like Schulz means that top students will follow.
“We have a Fulbright Scholar student coming to UTSA in the fall. He just accepted. These are students who could go to any university in the United States. They chose to come to UTSA,” Matamoros said. “They see our faculty and they get excited about their credentials. They see our facilities and they get excited about what we have. The combination of the two is what it takes to be a leading research university.”
“It’s amazing how far our structural engineering program has come when you think it didn’t exist less than seven years ago,” added Browning. “This is a result of a vision and commitment from our university leadership to become a research institution second to none. I credit our excellent faculty and staff for producing the exceptional work necessary to make this destination possible.”
In the final article in our structural engineering series, UTSA Today will highlight some of the students leveraging their opportunities to excel academically and in the business world.
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