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Human spine inspires bridge design development

Human back

The human spine has provided the inspiration for the design of a new low-cost bridge that could improve transport infrastructure resilience.

Researchers at Southampton University have developed the concept, using the human skeleton as the basis for their proposal for a durable, low maintenance, low cost bridge.

Intervertebral disks in the spine provide flexibility, dissipate energy from the movements of the body and absorb and transmit forces without damaging the bones, and academics will base their new design around these concepts.

Lead researcher Mehdi Kashani hopes the new method will make bridges better able to withstand environmental impact and the effects of climate change.

Kashani, an assistant professor in structural and earthquake engineering, said the current method of building bridges is too “fixed” and leaves infrastructure vulnerable to “corrosion and deterioration”, caused by lateral movement. 

“So after an earthquake [for example] they cannot be used, they either have to be demolished or repaired significantly, or during their service life they deteriorate due to the concrete cracking”, he told New Civil Engineer.

A spine-like bridge could be constructed using precast composite segments, based on the vertebrae of the spine, with a new smart composite material developed to act as the “intervertebral discs” between these segments.

The “vertebrae” and “intervertebral discs” would be tied together with a tendon acting as the longitudinal ligament to provide a self-centring mechanism in the column when it is subjected to lateral force.

Another benefit of the new method would be the potential to use off-site manufacturing of bridge piers. Kashani said this would speed up the process and make the construction and maintenance of longer linear structures easier. “Moving towards the future we need to do things differently, that’s the whole idea behind this project”, he added. 

The spine resilience-based design of biologically inspired columns for next generation accelerated bridge construction project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Work to develop the concept will start in May and run for two years with project partners Fiberline Holding, Jacobs UK Limited and the University of Bristol.

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