Shaking loose answers to seismic safety

PSU lab at forefront of region's preparation for catastrophic earthquakes

Some of the biggest discoveries in Peter Dusicka’s lab happen when he decides to shake things up – literally.

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Dusicka and his PSU graduate students maneuver huge pieces of construction material such as bridge columns and cross laminated timber panels onto a 10-foot by 10-foot table capable of replicating the motion of any earthquake that has ever been recorded.

And then they shake. And shake. And shake. And eventually, the material breaks.

Dusicka, associate professor of civil engineering, runs PSU’s infrastructure Testing and Applied Research (iSTAR) lab. Builders, planners and policy makers use the information Dusicka gathers from his physical experiments and computer models to make buildings and other structures safer and more resilient to earthquakes.

Dusicka tests new construction materials and methods such as Cross-laminated timber, or CLT, an engineered wood product produced in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. CLT is made of layers of wood that have been glued together and pressed, and its strength, durability and versatility are comparable to steel-reinforced concrete.

It is research of vital importance in a region infamously located near the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a “megathrust” fault that stretches from Northern Vancouver Island to Cape Mendocino, California and which is capable of producing earthquakes greater than a magnitude of 9.0.

The State of Oregon estimates that damage from the next great Cascadia subduction zone earthquake could kill as many as 10,000 Oregonians, destroy 24,000 buildings and severely damage transportation, energy, telecommunications and water systems. It would be “an unprecedented catastrophe,” one state report concludes.

The iSTAR lab’s sponsors and partners include the National Science Foundation, the American Institute of Steel Construction, Bonneville Power Administration, Multnomah County and Oregon BEST. The Oregon Department of Transportation and PSU's Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) are funding seismic studies of bridges across the state with an eye to retrofitting them. The iSTAR lab tested 120 rod anchors on the Sellwood Bridge, stressing them with up to one million pounds of pressure.

One to four months of careful planning goes into setting up an experiment in the iSTAR lab, Dusicka says. A 10-ton, overhead crane lifts materials into place. The lab works on three to four major research projects at a time, working with one or two graduate students on each project. Most graduate students come from earthquake prone countries. Undergraduates also help in the lab gaining invaluable experience. Most students graduate and are hired into consulting firms or government agencies earning up to $60,000 as a starting wage.

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