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How ‘intelligent’ concrete could impact road repairs, traffic

By |  May 21, 2020
Concrete sensors are helping to more precisely determine when new concrete pavement is ready to handle heavy traffic. Photo: Purdue University/Erin Easterling

Concrete sensors are helping to more precisely determine when new concrete pavement is ready to handle heavy traffic. Photo: Purdue University/Erin Easterling

An associate professor at Purdue University is exploring concrete’s ability to not only communicate but heal itself.

Luna Lu, an associate professor in Purdue’s Lyles School of Civil Engineering, is developing technology in her lab that would allow concrete-paved bridges and highways to reveal more accurately when they need repairs and to come equipped with materials that respond to potential damage.

“We look at how we can address problems in infrastructure using materials and sensors that harness artificial intelligence and big data,” Lu says. “The idea is to make infrastructure adaptive, sustainable and resilient.”

In 2019, Lu collaborated with the Indiana Department of Transportation to embed into three Indiana highways sensors that her lab developed. The highways are Interstate 465 near Indianapolis, Interstate 70 near Plainfield and Interstate 74 near Batesville. Data from the sensors offers recommendations on the best time to open up traffic after a patching or new pavement project.

According to Purdue, Lu’s team is working with the Federal Highway Administration to implement the concrete sensors in other states.

Concrete that communicates

At the same time, Lu’s team is developing a method for concrete to repair itself.

The team is investigating different types of highly porous, sand-like materials called “internal curing agents” to mix into concrete, Purdue says. When concrete cracks, the curing agents absorb water and feed it into chemical reactions. The reactions produce solid substances that seal off the crack, “healing” the concrete.

The healing process prevents water from seeping into the concrete and corroding steel or rebar reinforcement, Purdue reports.

“By using these self-healing materials, we can make infrastructure adaptive to temperature change,” Lu says.

Lu and other researchers are also thinking about how intelligent infrastructure could influence and adapt to human behavior.

“Traffic is always directional,” Lu says. “Conventional thinking is to add extra lanes, but artificial intelligence and big data could identify an underused lane and shift traffic into that direction. We’re developing technology that would allow for better control of traffic without adding extra lanes.”

Through partnerships with other universities, Purdue says Lu is bringing together researchers and resources to enable this type of infrastructure on a large scale.

“Together, we can pull even more data to identify the best ways to make infrastructure more safe and resilient,” Lu says. “We can develop algorithms that map out vulnerabilities in infrastructure going forward.”


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