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Engineers Explore New Forms for Longer Bridges

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

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University of Sheffield researchers, working in collaboration with a team from Brunel University London, recently identified new structural forms that could allow for the construction of very long-span bridges in locations where tranditonal bridges aren't tenable.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in mid-September, used a new mathematical modelling technique to determine what was most feasible for these longer projects, like the hypothetical Strait of Gibraltar crossing that's been discussed for decades but not yet brought to fruition.

New Bridge Forms

The University of Sheffield notes that the suspension bridge is currently the most popular form for long-span projects, but cable-stayed bridges are also becoming more popular. As spans increase in length, more of the structure is devoted to carrying its own weight, rather than traffic. This restriction sets a limit on how long a span can be; after a certain point, it is no longer able to support its own dead weight.

University of Sheffield professor and research lead Mathew Gilbert noted that while the suspension bridge has been around for hundreds of years, and some incremental improvements have been made, those working on these projects have not stopped to examine if this style of bridge is the most effective. “Our research has shown that more structurally efficient forms do exist, which might open the door to significantly longer bridge spans in the future.”

University of Sheffield

University of Sheffield researchers, working in collaboration with a team from Brunel University London, recently identified new structural forms that would allow for the construction of very long-span bridges

The method the team used is derived from theory developed by Davies Gilbert, who used mathematical in the 19th century to persuade Thomas Telford that the suspension cables in his design for the Menai Strait bridge, located in North Wales, formed a curve that was too shallow. Gilbert also proposed a “catenary of equal stress” that showed the optimal shape of a suspension cable when gravity loads were accounted for.

Combining this theory with a modern mathematical optimization model, the research team identified a bridge concept with regions reminiscent of a bicycle wheel, with a number of spokes instead of a single tower. These would be difficult to build on a large scale, however; instead, the team incorporated split towers with two or three spokes.

There is also an issue of the weight of materials: for a 5-kilometer (roughly 3.10-mile) span, which would likely be required for the Strait of Gibraltar project, a traditional suspension bridge would require a lot more material—the structure would be 73 percent heavier than the optimal design. The two- and three-spoke designs, on the other hand, would only be 12 percent and 6 percent heavier, respectively.

The team emphasized that this research is only the first step; the current design only accounts for gravity loads and does not include dynamic forces.

"This is an interesting development in the search for greater material efficiency in the design of super-long span bridges,” said research co-author and long-span bridge expert Ian Firth, of engineering consultants COWI, which has worked on the concept of the Gibraltar bridge. “There is much more work to do, notably in devising effective and economic construction methods, but maybe one day we will see these new forms taking shape across some wide estuary or sea crossing."


Tagged categories: Bridges; EU; Europe; Infrastructure; Program/Project Management; Research and development

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