Washington — The plastics composites industry is making a push for government support to develop standards for fiber-reinforced polymers in roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects, seeing it as way to build some much-needed acceptance of the material.
At an April 18 hearing before a House subcommittee on science and technology, industry executives and others urged Congress to budget money for a five-year project to develop the same kind of standards for plastics composites that they say legacy materials like steel and concrete already have.
Shane Weyant, CEO of Creative Pultrusions Inc. in Alum Bank, Pa., told the committee that FRP can last longer and be cheaper than conventional materials over the lifespan of a product. But sizable barriers remain to more widespread use in government projects.
"What we know from experience is that the lack of awareness of and importantly standards for composites is our threshold problem," he testified.
The effort would be spearheaded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, part of the Department of Commerce. It grows out of a NIST report from December and a year-long effort to identify barriers to greater use of FRP in infrastructure projects.
In its report, NIST said composites could provide an attractive "price-performance tradeoff" to reduce the cost to rebuild infrastructure in the United States.
The agency estimated infrastructure needs in the U.S. call for about $460 billion a year in spending through 2025, well above current actual spending of $250 billion.
"While private and public entities have begun to introduce FRP composites into real-world applications, barriers to widespread use of these materials in infrastructure continue to exist at all levels, from regulation to fundamental materials science," NIST said.
The new federal research program would be very modest by Washington standards, costing an estimated $11 million. No one testifying or speaking among the members of Congress at the hearing said they opposed it, but some noted tight federal budgets and growing deficits, suggesting that funding is by no means assured.
Tom Dobbins, the president and CEO of the American Composites Manufacturers Association, said in an interview on the sidelines that the composites industry is asking for the same kind of standards that other materials have, and he noted that they were developed with government help.
He predicted that it would be "politically almost impossible" for other materials industries to oppose the $11 million that FRP makers are seeking.
But he also said as the FRP industry makes gains, it will face more resistance from traditional building materials in other policy debates.
"The more successful we are, the harder the steel industry is going to push back," Dobbins said. "We don't know how and where it will come."
He also said more education and training is a critical barrier, a point the NIST report echoed.
David Lange, a professor in the department of environmental engineering at the University of Illinois and an authority on composites, told the committee that among the 220 civil engineering programs at universities across the United States, courses on FRP materials are "practically nonexistent."
"Civil engineering education is not acting as a change agent," Lange said.
Still, FRP advocates say strides are being made.
NIST said its report was a "seminal event" within composites because it's the first time that a wide cross section of the FRP industry and other stakeholders gathered to look at infrastructure issues.
Weyant called it a "great example of positive engagement between industry, academia and government because it produced actionable results."
NIST said the market share of FRP materials varies widely across different products. It said that FRP composite bridge decks, for example, have less than 1 percent of the market in the U.S., while products like FRP cooling towers have about 70 percent of that market.
It also noted that some other countries are making more use of FRP. NIST said Canada is using glass-fiber reinforced polymer rebar in about 200 bridges, compared with only about 65 in the U.S.
Dobbins said one strategy for the FRP industry is to focus on finding new designs that play to its strengths, rather than go head to head with legacy materials.
"If we think about it, steel in bridges, they've had 100 years to refine the design of those bridges, to take cost out, to improve performance," he said. "We've had 20 years. We need to have more focus on design, to take out cost, to improve performance and to make ourselves more competitive."