Genoa motorway bridge collapse 4 days ago was a catastrophic one, creating a scene, rescuers compared to the aftermath of an earthquake. Italy declared a State of emergency while agreeing that the collapse of the Morandi Bridge was an “immense tragedy”.
Why did the Genoa bridge collapse?
Engineering experts were immediately in the limelight weighing in each one with explanations but are too soon to know why a bridge of that calibre collapsed. Satellite images revealing the extent of the devastation after the shocking collapse as it happened, have made it, as it were worse, i.e. while in use by vehicles.
The Economist Construction technology on August 18th, 2018, in its Print edition of Science and technology proposed this article after the disastrous collapse of the Genoa Morandi Bridge last Tuesday.
Crumbling infrastructure is a worldwide problem
A bridge too far
The first bridges were likely to have been built by early man shoving a fallen tree across a stream. Since then, construction techniques have come on a bit—from wood to stone, wrought iron and then steel. In the 20th century, reinforced concrete appeared. Concrete is an immensely strong material, especially when coupled with steel. But the sudden collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa this week (pictured), with a tragic loss of life, adds to the concern of civil engineers that many bridges around the world which use reinforced concrete are deteriorating faster than was expected.
The Genoa bridge is based on a design called a cable-stayed bridge, although it is a somewhat unusual variant. Such a bridge uses one or more towers, from which run cables that support the deck of the bridge. This is different from a suspension bridge, such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, in which the cables holding up the deck are suspended vertically from a main cable anchored at either end of the bridge. Cable-stayed bridges are widely used, mainly for spans shorter than those crossed in one go by a suspension bridge.
A familiar feature of a cable-stayed bridge is that the cables form a fan-like pattern emanating from the supporting tower. If one of the cables is damaged or breaks, it should be obvious; the loading on the bridge is calculated so that the remaining cables will be capable of holding the structure up. The Morandi bridge is different because it was supported by pre-stressed concrete tendons. The tendons are made from bundles of steel wires tightened to produce compressive strength and then encased in concrete. The bridge was designed by Riccardo Morandi, a proponent of this type of bridge. Only a few have been built around the world.
Concerns about Genoa’s bridge had been raised in the past. The Italian media has reported that in 2016, Antonio Brencich, a specialist in reinforced concrete at the University of Genoa, described the bridge as a “failure of engineering” and that sooner or later it would have to be replaced. Daniele Zonta, a civil-engineering expert at the University of Strathclyde, in Britain, says that since the opening of the bridge in 1967 the tendons have required continuous monitoring and maintenance.
Although the design of the bridge is unusual, it is much too early to say if that played any fundamental part in the collapse. And in other respects, the Morandi bridge is far from atypical. All around the world bridges built long ago, particularly those using reinforced concrete, are deteriorating. Even back in 1999, a study found that around 30% of road bridges in Europe had some sort of defect, particularly corrosion of their steel reinforcing or pre-stressed tendons.
A report from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association in January is even more sobering. It reckoned that 54,259 of that country’s 612,677 bridges are “structurally deficient”. These problem bridges have an average age of 67 years and are crossed by vehicles 174m times every day. At the present rate of repair and replacement, it will take 37 years to remedy all the problems, says Alison Premo Black, the organisation’s chief economist.
What is going wrong with these bridges? The difficulty is that concrete, or rather the steel used to reinforce it, can fail in a number of ways. Salt, ice and the pounding of weather can cause tiny fractures in the concrete’s surface. As these cracks creep inward, they let in water. Once the water reaches the steel reinforcing or tendons, it corrodes them. This enlarges the cracks, which can cause the concrete to fall apart. That this is happening is evident from rusty streaks on crumbling concrete.
Other factors compound the deterioration of bridges, such as a constant cyclic vibration from traffic, says Mehdi Kashani, an expert in structural mechanics at the University of Southampton, in Britain. This is troublesome for bridges designed in the 1960s, when traffic flows were lower, cars were smaller and lorries much lighter. On top of that, extreme weather can take a toll, with heat and cold expanding and contracting the structure, floods eroding away foundations and high winds buffeting the bridge. This is why regular inspections and maintenance are essential.
New methods of monitoring structures are available to help engineers spot problems before they become critical. Instead of the arduous task of climbing up bridges or erecting scaffolding, camera drones can easily take a close-up picture of just about any part of a bridge. Electronic sensors can provide regular readings of any movement in the structure. And laser scanners are capable of picking up fine details and displaying them as a three-dimensional image. All this should help, but only if regimes exist to ensure that careful monitoring and preventive maintenance take place. If such tasks are skipped, for whatever reason, the result could be disaster. “The Genoa bridge is not the first to fall down,” says Dr Kashani. “And unfortunately it will not be the last.”
Repair or replace?
Monitoring and repair are not the only options. When bridges were being built in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, many were expected to last for more than 100 years. But the decay of reinforced concrete leads some civil engineers to think that such bridges may have a life of only 50-60 years. That means thousands of bridges are coming to the end of their days. Refurbishment is possible, but it is slow and very costly. It might end up being more expensive than building a new bridge.
New structures can also take advantage of advances in engineering. There has been huge progress in materials science, so much so that it is now possible to tinker with the internal structure of substances to make concrete more robust and steel better at resisting rust. Ultra-high-performance concrete is already being made in some countries to toughen buildings against such things as earthquakes and bombs. Apart from just sand and cement, other ingredients are added to these super concretes, such as quartz and various reinforcing materials. In some tests, the addition of plant fibres has been shown to produce markedly stronger concrete.
Self-healing concrete is also being explored. Different methods can be used, but the basic idea is that, should cracks appear in the surface, they will trigger a chemical reaction that seals them up again.
Wholesale replacement of elderly bridges would be an expensive exercise, however. The Governor Mario M Cuomo Bridge, which opened as a replacement for the old Tappan Zee Bridge which crosses the Hudson River in New York, is expected to become fully operational later this year. It is also a cable-stayed bridge, but one of a more traditional design. It is expected to cost some $4bn. The old bridge, built largely from steel and concrete in the 1950s, was knocked up for some $60m, which in today’s terms would be a bargain $564m. The Tappan Zee Bridge was predicted to have a lifetime of only 50 years; it managed nearly 62. Its replacement is supposed to last for a century. Time will tell.
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