Giant Toaster to Fry Steel Beams

Purdue civil engineering doctoral student Lisa Choe works with graduate student Sungwoo Oh in using a one-of-a-kind heating system to study the effects of fire on steel structures. Research assistant Michael Bratt, far left, looks on. The work is led by Amit Varma, a Purdue associate professor of civil engineering (green hardhat), seen here with graduate students Erica Fischer and Kristi Selden. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

There are some pretty crazy people out there. For example, the folks who believe that the World Trade Center collapse was a giant hoax but on by government. After all, weren’t those towers built to withstand the impact of an airplane collision? There just had to be additional explosives or well-placed substances burning at extremely high temperatures to bring the twins. Right?

Well theoretically, maybe.

Traditionally, civil engineering research is conducted by using scale models put into the most similar conditions possible. Rather than building a skyscraper and subjecting it to a battery of natural and manmade disasters to see how the concrete and steel beams react, models on a much smaller scale will be built and subjected to similarly scaled destructive forces. Then, by measuring the stresses, strains, deformations and destruction of the models, engineers can make educated guesses as to how materials and structures will hold up on a full scale.

One of the methods used to test how scaled-down versions of steel beams react to extreme heat is to throw them into a furnace and see what happens. However, this makes it rather difficult to simulate the loads and stresses on the beams resulting from holding up a giant skyscraper. Plus, there’s a limit to how big of a beam you can test because, well, there’s a limit to how big of a furnace you can find.

The furnace used at Michigan State University for testing civil engineering structures. This was the best the researchers could do until recently.

However, for the group of engineers working at Purdue University’s Robert L. and Terry L. bowen Laboratory for Large-Scale Civil Engineering Research, these limits just aren’t good enough. This is why they’ve designed a new way to test full-scale steel beams at extreme temperatures.

They’ve built a giant toaster.

Okay, well not really in a traditional sense. What they’ve developed is a series of panels each four-square-feet that can be spread across an object. The panels have electric coils – just like a toaster oven – placed close to the surface. And because these panels can simulate hotter and cooler areas just like a real fire without being confined to a furnace, researchers also can load up the beams with the types of stresses and forces they would experience in the real world.

If it sounds like this requires a giant lab space, you’re right. The Bowen Lab is 65,000-square-feet of laboratory equipped with special hydraulic testing equipment and giant overhead cranes. It almost makes me think I made a mistake going into aerospace engineering. I mean come on, heating giant steel beams to thousands of degrees while yanking and pulling on them to try to make them break kind of sounds like fun!


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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