Laboratory celebrates grand opening at U

The research facility studies earthquakes, high winds and other extreme events.

Mehgan Lee

A new research facility on campus allows scholars around the nation to apply some major pressure – more than a million pounds of it.

The MAST Laboratory, which celebrated its grand opening Tuesday, studies the effects of earthquakes, high winds and other extreme events on large-scale structures such as buildings and bridges.

Structures up to 29 feet tall and 20 feet wide are placed on a testing platform and subjected to heavy loads by hydraulic arms that mimic the conditions of extreme events, said Catherine French, lead investigator for the project and civil engineering professor.

The arms can simulate vertical forces of 1.32 million pounds and horizontal forces of 800,000 pounds, said Jerome Hajjar, project investigator and civil engineering professor.

“The research will be used to develop new types of structural systems that are safer and more cost-effective,” he said.

Despite the cloudy skies and rainy weather, approximately 200 people attended the grand opening, including University President Bob Bruininks.

The laboratory will “provide terrific and unique research opportunities for our graduate and undergraduate students,” Bruininks said.

Charles Swan, a junior in chemical engineering, said the laboratory has already provided him with hands-on experience in robotics, a field he hopes to enter one day.

The laboratory will also “create new ideas and practices that will not only improve the economy in Minnesota, but also the quality of life in the nation,” Bruininks said.

A number of faculty members who work at the MAST Laboratory also develop the nation’s building codes.

The laboratory is funded by a $6.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation and a $4.8 million grant from the University.

Bruininks said that because the University is one of the only research facilities in the state, it needs to maintain research projects such as the laboratory.

“That requires that we invest in the types of programs we’re celebrating here tonight,” he said.

Half of the research conducted at the laboratory will be for the National Science Foundation. However, the other half of the time, the laboratory will be available to conduct research for other organizations and commercial companies.

Nationally, the laboratory is one of the largest and strongest in the amount of force researchers can put on structures, Hajjar said.

It is also unique, because it conducts multi-axial testing on structures using six degrees of freedom, French said. This means testing can be conducted on structures by twisting them in either direction and by loading them with pressure from the top, bottom and two sides, she said.

Hajjar said the scientists are conducting earthquake research in the Midwest, because they want to educate students for a global economy.

Structural engineering students will need to know how to build earthquake-proof structures, if they want to work outside of the Midwest, he said.

“And the University does a lot of research not only for the state, but for the nation,” he said.

The laboratory is one of 15 facilities nationwide that make up the George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation.