SANTA ANA, CALIF. - A few pioneering companies are bridging the chasm that had blocked widespread acceptance of polymer composites in highway applications. Earthquake-prone California is the testing ground, and the hottest application is wrapping concrete-and-steel bridge supports with composite reinforcements.
Jim Roberts, director of the Engineering Support Center for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), is challenging composites suppliers to provide material specifications that satisfy highway engineers.
``We have to be able to replicate in the field what's tested in the laboratory,'' he said.
Presently, at $10,000-$16,000 per column, Caltrans uses steel jackets for seismic column wrapping ``because that's a known quantity,'' he said.
Steel is the only Caltrans-qualified material for this work, and steel producers lobby with a strong Caltrans contingent that favors steel to the exclusion of other materials.
Caltrans plans to tap Aerospace Corp.'s systems engineering division in El Se-gundo, Calif., for help in identifying acceptable methods to test fiber, resin and composite structures, according to Mohsen Sultan, chief of the agency's new technology manage-ment branch.
``The data generated under this program will serve as the springboard for other composites ap-plications,'' Sultan said.
Brian Wilson, a consultant to the composites industry, sees opportunity in the testing program.
``Ultimately, Caltrans and leading composites industry representatives will resolve the specification and approval process - probably this year - so that Caltrans can go to industry with a bid package,'' Wilson said.
Wilson, president of Wilson Composite Group Inc. in Folsom, Calif., organized the Wilson Forum, a composites conference held last month in Santa Ana.
To be successful, the composites industry first must learn to speak the language of highway engineers.
``We're a long way apart in understanding the methods, but both sides are asking questions,'' said Bruce Fawcett, market manager of North America composites for Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. in Toledo, Ohio. ``We're taking a measured approach and keeping our options open.''
Caltrans relies on construction-based material specifications, while the polymer composites industry generally uses finished-product aerospace performance specifications.
``We've got as many as 200 resin systems, and maybe 20 can meet these requirements,'' Wilson said.
Ralph Nuismer, manager of composites structures business development for Alliant Techsystems in Magna, Utah, sees value in Caltrans' approach but anticipates ``a long, drawn-out procedure'' that will keep prospective suppliers from qualifying to bid on projects. Alliant acquired the structures business March 15 from Hercules Inc.
Composites manufacturers are under the gun to succeed in the highway infrastructure market, because defense- and aircraft-industry downsizing have bruised composite suppliers.
``There are fewer [polymercomposite] material suppliers today than last year,'' said Ray Williams, marketing manager in Escondido, Calif., for ICI Fiberite.
Durability and, to an extent, politics are major factors controlling the entry of composites into the infrastructure market, according to Fred Isley, marketing manager of general industrial products for Hexcel Corp. in Pleasanton, Calif. Cost also is critical.
``If you can't be cost effective, you're not going to be doing any work for us,'' Caltrans' Roberts said. ``We're spending $2.5 billion on a program to retrofit some 2,200 structures, and we're halfway there.''
Roberts said California primarily needs to strengthen nonductile structures ``so columns won't explode when they go through a seismic event.'' The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake put Caltrans into overdrive, and the frantic pace continues.
Roberts sees bridge decks as composites' biggest potential market.
``Half of the bridges east of the Mississippi River are going to have to have their decks replaced in the next 10 or 20 years,'' he said. ``Steel deteriorates.''
Three polymer composite systems are competing for Caltrans' column-wrapping business, and major construction companies Bechtel Group Inc., Fluor Corp.'s Daniel subsidiary and Morrison Knudsen Corp. are eyeing the market. The firms know Caltrans' approval will lead the way to work in other states.
Prospective bidders include Hexcel Fyfe Co. of Del Mar, Calif., NCF Industries Inc. of Long Beach, Calif., and an Advanced Research Projects Agency defense-conversion project that includes XXsys Technologies Inc. of San Diego.
Hexcel Fyfe ``wallpapers'' columns with multiple layers of unidirectional woven E-glass fabric and high-performance epoxy matrix. The number of wraps is calculated on size, initial design and desired ductility of the wrapped product.
Fabric accounts for 55 percent of the weight in the high-strength Tyfo S Fibrwrap system, which costs $9,500-$14,000 per column, the firm said.
The relationship between Hexcel Fyfe and Caltrans got off to a bad start due to a misunderstanding about an experimental installation, but the venture recovered and has wrapped more than 800 columns.
California installations include two public bridges on a demonstration basis, 10 private parking garages and a complete building. Certain test sites near the 1994 Northridge earthquake survived with no damage.
Outside California, Hexcel Fyfe has wrapped columns for nine state transportation departments and done five piers or poles and two storage tanks.
Norman Fawley, president of NCF Industries, jumped into the market after the January 1994 Northridge, Calif., earthquake.
``After the Northridge quake woke me, I went down to the Santa Monica Freeway to study the damage. I knew how to prevent this kind of damage,'' according to Fawley.
NCF's technology involves manufacturing preform clamshell cylinders of fiberglass and resin. Four clamshells are applied to each column, overlapping the seams for strength.
Weighing 60 pounds, the pre-molded and precured flexible Snap Tite jackets of E-glass and polyester are bonded on-site with a urethane adhesive that cures at ambient temperature.
The cylinders have been applied to one bridge in California and one column outside the state.
NCF has licensed its technology to CMI Inc., a new company formed by Clinton C. Myers, who owns highway engineering firm C.C. Myers Inc. of Anaheim, Calif.
XXsys Technologies' entry in the bridge reinforcement market is a system that automatically wraps columns with carbon tows and epoxy that cures at an elevated temperature.
Collaborating with XXsys are the University of California San Diego; Hercules of Wilmington, Del.; and Ciba Composites of Anaheim.
In February, XXsys retrofitted five bridge columns for Caltrans. The federal Advanced Research Projects Agency's Technology Reinvestment Project awarded $10.5 million to the XXsys team.