Worldwide insured losses from natural disasters hit a record $144 billion in 2017, according to Swiss Re.
In 2017, the United States saw eight severe storms that caused at least a billion dollars in damage each. Hurricane Harvey, which hit the U.S. last year, was the second-most expensive hurricane on record. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria combined caused $92 billion in insured losses.
There were also seven earthquakes above a magnitude of 7, and 104 between 6 and 7 on the Richter scale. The worst two were a 7.1 earthquake, which hit Mexico City and killed 369 people, and another that killed 620 people along the Iran-Iraq border. Scientists are predicting 2018 will be a bad year for earthquakes because the earth’s rotation is slowing down.
We can’t prevent natural disasters, but we can minimize the damage they cause. One of the primary ways we can do this is by improving the structural integrity of buildings, bridges and other structures so they don’t collapse when disaster strikes.
Scientists and construction professionals are working on a variety of innovative new technologies, materials and practices to improve structural integrity. Here a few of them.
Concrete is the most popular construction material in the world, and while it has many advantages, it can crack and weaken over time. In the past, to fix damaged concrete, you had to patch it, reinforce it or rebuild it entirely.
Recently, though, scientists have developed several types of “self-healing” concrete that can fix themselves. One of the most promising innovations involves infusing concrete with capsules of sodium silicate. When a fracture forms, the capsules open and release a gel that then hardens to fix the crack.
Other methods use glass capillaries, polymer microcapsules and bacteria to a similar effect.
Virtual and Augmented Reality
A variety of industries now use virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to improve their processes. The construction is now beginning to use it to design, evaluate and sell buildings.
VR- and AR-based systems enable workers or inspectors to walk through a building, even before it’s finished, to evaluate structural integrity. These technologies could make these assessments more efficient, and enable inspectors to catch structural issues earlier in the construction process.
Prefabrication isn’t a new idea, but it’s becoming increasingly popular, and many experts believe it will be the future of construction. Prefabrication involves constructing building components offsite, then putting them together onsite.
This method can be more efficient, reduce waste, increase worker safety and improve structural integrity. When workers can make parts offsite in a controlled environment, they don't have to worry about field conditions, improving quality control.
Concrete boom pumps are another technology that, while not an entirely new idea, is becoming more common and more effective in today’s construction industry. Rather than using manual labor or a mixing truck, workers can now use piston-operated boom pumps to move concrete through discharge pipes to where it’s needed.
Using concrete boom pumps makes concrete pouring more efficient, allows for more flexibility and, by using less water, improves the structural integrity.
Using advanced techniques such as electron-beam lithography, scientists have developed a material called carbon nanotubes, which has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any known substance. When inserted into other elements such as concrete, metals and glass, these tiny particles increase their strength tremendously.
Just how small are these carbon nanotubes? Divide a meter by 1 billion, and you get a nanometer. For comparison, a piece of paper has a thickness of around 100,000 nanometers. Researchers are also experimenting with nanoscale sensors that can identify potential cracks in materials before they form.
Researchers at the Polytechnic University of Valencia have developed an anti-seismic brick, called the Sisbrick, designed to improve buildings’ resistance to earthquake damage. The bricks are designed for use in partition walls and can easily incorporate into traditional buildings.
The bricks isolate partition walls from the main building structure, which reduces the tension between them and reduces damage. It does this by both absorbing horizontal seismic movements and supporting vertical loads that impact a building’s integrity.
We won’t see an end to natural disasters anytime soon, what we can do, however, is improve how our structures respond to them.
By advancing the structural integrity of our buildings, bridges and other structures, we can save lives and reduce the economic impacts of earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural events.