UTSA wins funding to develop indestructible cells for earthquake resistant buildings


Credit: UTSA

More than 80,000 aftershocks have been recorded in the aftermath of the two California earthquakes that occurred during the Fourth of July holiday. Californians, generally complacent about earthquakes, were caught by surprise with tremors that were the largest in magnitude in the last decade. Although there was no loss of human life, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the earthquakes led to economic losses of approximately $1 billion.

Now researchers at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) have won funding to test architectural materials that can help reduce the lateral movement caused by seismic events with little disruption to everyday life.

“Imagine using just one material that can both hold the weight of a building but also dissipate the energy of an earthquake,” said David Restrepo, assistant professor in the UTSA Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Architects presently rely on metallic or thick and elastic dampers to help mitigate the movement of a building during tremors. However, these same damping devices deform upon impact or melt in extreme temperatures such as fires. This inflexibility results in crumbling buildings and expensive reconstructive efforts.

“We’re working on getting new architectural materials with the right shape that can deform upon an earthquake, trap the energy, dissipate it, and then return to its undeformed state without the need of extra processing or repairs,” adds Restrepo. “We can create a material that relies on elastic deformation.”

During earthquakes, a building’s walls can shear and cause separation. Restrepo intends to place what’s called periodic cellular materials (PCMs), or repeating structures, within the walls to avoid this deformation.

His solution offers three benefits. First, the reduction of structural steel and costs needed in the construction. Second, it’s lightweight. Third, it absorbs high levels of energy.

Currently, the UTSA researcher is assessing flexible architectural materials and working on mathematical formulas to calculate the strength needed for an optimal product. He will collaborate on the research with Colombian civil engineers at Universidad EAFIT and anticipates having preliminary results ready by the end of this year.

The UTSA Office of the Vice President for Research, Economic Development, and Knowledge Enterprise (VPREDKE) provided seed funding to jumpstart Restrepo’s earthquake resilience project.

“This is not just about buildings. It’s also about saving lives. We will eventually incorporate these architectural materials even in cars,” said Restrepo.


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