USACE Protects, Modernizes US Infrastructure
At the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Paint Technology Center of Expertise (PTCx), coatings experts reportedly have an extensive array of laboratory equipment and instrumentation to conduct research and development on a broad range of coating types.
Located at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL) in Champaign, Illinois, researchers are also able to study and mitigate corrosion on vital infrastructure.
“Much of the stuff we do falls under the mission of modernizing our nation’s infrastructure in the way of being able to use modern technology to provide better resistance, better sustainability and better resiliency against our really harsh climate, especially as the climate changes,” Dr. Rebekah Wilson, Director of Research and Development at PTCx, explained.
“Our corrosion rates are going up 1% each year, which means we are going to have a bigger challenge as the years go by. The technology we have now, that is working good enough, is not going to withstand that. Not only that, but our current technology, while it is working well, is not very environmentally friendly. So, we have been working hard, and will continue working, to try make those greener systems.”
Coatings Research at PCT
By utilizing the various tools and equipment to measure and test coatings, researchers at PTCx can explore coatings capable of harnessing solar energy, paints that can provide longer corrosion protection on steel structures, formulations with antifouling properties and so much more.
According to USACE, this type of coatings research and development is conducted daily, as the Center’s mission is to provide “paints and coatings subject matter expertise to ensure resilience and sustainability of infrastructure through innovative R&D and efficient field support.”
The USACE attributes its ability to fulfill its mission to a combination of the Center’s available technologies and diverse staff.
“Our research team has several different backgrounds. I am an analytical chemist, we have a geologist, we have mechanical engineers, material engineers, and baseline technicians that are former active military, which give us yet another unique background,” Wilson said. “When we all come together, we are tackling problems with our own background of expertise, really developing holistic types of R&D products.”
Wilson went on to note that when something can’t be resolved or formulated by the minds of the research team, it is beneficial to have the proper equipment to be able to pick apart a coating forensically—even if it is only a few millimeters wide.
She also said that the technology further elevates the Center as a global leader in paints and coatings, as well as a tremendous asset in maintaining and modernizing infrastructure.
The combination of minds and technology at PTCx give the Center the ability to quickly assess problems and provide solutions, sometimes within 24 hours, according to USACE.
Recently, Wilson and others at PTCx have been dealing with issues plaguing much of the coatings industry. Most notably, the researchers are struggling with the global crisis regarding the obtainment of raw materials needed to protect valuable infrastructure, whether they be related to shortages or supply chains.
“Everyone is having material and supply issues, and when it comes to our coating systems, we are really seeing a huge hit,” Wilson said. “The U.S. military alone spends more than $20 billion a year trying to mitigate corrosion of all our assets, and our coatings are our first line of defense against that.”
However, because research efforts have been essentially nonstop at PTCx, Wilson notes that thankfully, expert teams have been able to select the next best option for developing new coating formulations, in addition to choosing coatings that are commercially available for current projects.
In not skipping a beat when it comes to pressing forward through these widespread obstacles, the PTCx has recently been asked to find solutions to several challenges. As part of these requests, Wilson reports that the Center has also been asked to explore the future of coatings and sensors in a way she could not have imagined when she began working at PTCx in 2015.
“When I started here, our R&D program ran at about $300,000 a year; we had mostly civil works projects underneath corrosion prevention at our locks and dams. Over the past several years we have driven that up to a multimillion-dollar R&D program that spans military and civil works and is focused on more than just coatings, not just looking and formulating coatings, but surface preparation,” she said.
“We just recently got a patent on new analytical techniques that will streamline coating performance technology, so it is really branching out the areas of what we are looking at. It’s not even corrosion, but looking at ways can do energy efficiency relations, smart sensing and concealment; we have really taken that portfolio and expanded it quite a bit.”
With these new goals in mind, Wilson notes that she is excited to see the coatings industry move beyond corrosion prevention. In the future, she hopes that coatings will be able to do much more for a structure than just protect it from the elements.
“Most people think of coatings as something aesthetic, which is true to some extent, but coatings give you a platform to provide after-market technology or capabilities to latent surfaces. For instance, we are diving into being able to develop a solid solar cell coating that is clear,” Wilson said. “We can put it on buildings and use these large structures that already exist as harvesting for energy without having really large, dark solar panels that people typically see.
“I think that’s one of the bigger things people are less aware of,” she said. “There’s a lot of technology that can be imbedded within a coating that makes it a really good platform in a wide range of R&D areas.”