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Technological makeover scheduled for UC Berkeley seismic testing facility
06 Feb 2001

By Catherine Zandonella, Media Relations

Berkeley - The earthquake simulation facility at the University of California, Berkeley's Richmond Field Station is about to get a 21st century makeover, one that will allow researchers around the world to perform quake tests there via the Internet.

Robots, wireless sensors and other high-tech tools will be installed later this year thanks to a $4.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced this week. With these additions, researchers can create and monitor tests that are more realistic than ever before.

When researchers conduct seismic tests, cameras mounted throughout the testing bay will track the course of the experiments and a mobile robot will serve as a stand-in for researchers at distant locales. Wireless sensors will record the movements and deformations of the test item and feed the information to computers.

The cameras and sensors will monitor a massive new testing apparatus - a 42-foot tall stack of concrete blocks called a reaction wall. The wall can apply quake-like forces to test full-size structures such as the welded joints used in steel buildings that cracked after the 1994 Northridge earthquake or the concrete columns supporting a double-deck freeway.

The new test equipment will greatly enhance the capabilities of the Richmond facility, already one of the major earthquake testing facilities in the country, said Jack Moehle, professor of civil engineering and director of the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center, a consortium of western universities.

The new testing facility will solve a major challenge in earthquake engineering: how to simulate the movement of a complex structure like a tall building or a long bridge, where many parts can be mathematically modeled using a computer, while a few parts are so complex that they must be modeled using real-life tests. With the new system, said Bozidar Stojadinovic, UC Berkeley assistant professor of civil engineering, the tests will all be connected into one virtual simulation, one that is both more economical and more realistic.

During a test, powerful computer algorithms will calculate how strong and fast the test forces need to be given the earthquake that is being simulated. "Our virtual laboratory will be able to assess, more reliably than ever before, the seismic safety of large structures such as bridges, electrical power facilities, and high-rise buildings," said Stephen Mahin, professor of civil engineering at UC Berkeley.

The grant was awarded by the NSF's George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) program, which is spending $81.9 million to improve the seismic design and performance of the U.S. civil and mechanical infrastructure.