Auburn University marked the opening of its $22 million Advanced Structural Engineering Laboratory (ASEL) — a state of the art facility referred to as an “engineer’s dream” — with a grand opening and dedication ceremony last Friday.
The roughly 42,000 square-foot facility includes a high bay laboratory with a “Strong Wall” and “Strong Floor” that are specially engineered to handle extreme structural testing loads; a 4,700 cubic-foot geotechnical chamber within the “Strong Floor;” a concrete materials research and testing laboratory; wind testing capabilities that can replicate hurricane level loads; and faculty and graduate student spaces.
“The word ‘strong’ is pretty descriptive; it’s very simple, but the reality is that’s what it is,” said Justin D. Marshall, ASEL director. “We build and test structural components at full scale that would be used in bridges, buildings, stadiums, light poles, power poles, anything that’s an above-ground structure.
“We’re able to build it and test it at full scale here in this laboratory.”
Work on the facility, located near the intersection of Shug Jordan Parkway and West Samford Avenue, began in August 2019 and was completed in October 2020.
Despite some equipment delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, students have been using the facility ever since construction was completed.
“We’ve just got a few more major pieces of equipment that are getting set up, and then we’ll be fully operational,” Marshall said. “We have probably, right now, about 15 or 20 students in here every day working on different projects that are already ongoing.”
Some of those projects include temporary structures for the U.S. Air Force; research on buildings composed of timber and steel; and work related to bridges, sign poles and light poles for the Alabama Department of Transportation.
“At full capacity we would be using undergraduate and graduate students quite a bit in here,” Marshall said.
The geotechnical test chamber is unique because it’s one of the few test chambers in the nation included in a university laboratory. It will allow researchers to conduct testing on foundations, anchorages and towers that was previously only possible in the field.
“All infrastructures are built on foundations. The soil is where everything reacts. Testing components on this solid concrete floor is helpful, but in the real world we have the interaction between the soil and the foundation and the structure,” Marshall said. “This chamber let’s us test full scale systems.”
The test chamber’s location within the “Strong Floor” is also unique.
“We’re able to build frameworks around it and really test it to the full capacity and learn more, so we can design more efficient structures, or safer structures, or longer lasting structures,” Marshall said.
Dan Jackson, a doctoral candidate studying Geotechnical Engineering, said the new lab location will make testing materials easier.
He has been working in the ASEL since January, and is set to graduate in August.
“Our old lab was close to Toomer’s Corner, so close to downtown. To get a large structural element in there is almost impossible,” Jackson said. “Here, it’s so open you can back a whole tractor-trailer with a large, structural element in here with the two cranes and just lift it right up. Just the ease of doing that research will be great.”
Jackson also spoke highly of the open concept office spaces, which he said allows for more collaboration between students and professors. But what he is most excited about is the geotechnical test chamber.
“It will really allow us to test full scale soil structure interaction problems that just wouldn’t be possible otherwise,” Jackson said. “A lot of that research is going to be driven by the graduate students. The professors, they’ll be managing the project, and the day-to-day stuff is going to be the graduate students.”
“Having such a nice facility … There’s really no limitations here for this type of research.”
Marshall said the research done at the ASEL is important because it affects people on a daily basis. As the population grows, things become bigger — roads, bridges, buildings. Those all need to be constructed in a safe, efficient way.
“To be able to really understand the details of what happens requires these tests. When you do tests at smaller scales, it’s easy to miss something,” Marshall said. “Our first and foremost responsibility is always life safety. We also are striving more and more to have longevity and performance that carries on for longer times.”