BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border
that underwent a magnitude 7.2 earthquake last week is one that
University at Buffalo graduate student and Fulbright scholar
Mustafa Mashal knows well.
Before arriving at UB in 2009, Mashal spent several years
working for a prime contractor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,
designing and constructing military bases in the region, home to
numerous insurgent groups, for the Afghan National Army and Border
Fortunately, because of the area's sparse population and the
temblor's low intensity, it caused minimal damage or disruption in
Afghanistan, but it destroyed more than 200 homes near the
epicenter in Pakistan.
Mashal says the region's seismicity is well known.
"Afghanistan has a much more severe risk of earthquakes than
California does," he says. "Every other month, we have something on
the order of a magnitude of more than 7.0 in the Hindu Kush region
in northeastern Afghanistan."
The intense and frequent seismicity of this part of the world,
especially the 2005 Pakistani earthquake, which killed 80,000
people, helped inspire Mashal to study earthquake engineering to
find ways to make homes and buildings safer.
Ultimately, he decided to come to UB to study with renowned
professors who conduct research in UB's MCEER (formerly the
Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research).
Mashal is taking full advantage of the structural engineering
curriculum and top-notch research facilities in the UB Department
of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering in the School of
Engineering and Applied Sciences.
He also is sharing with classmates and instructors some of the
novel things he learned while on the job in various remote
Afghanistan regions, which have recently attracted the attention of
Last semester, one of his class assignments was to pick a
building in Buffalo and design a way to retrofit it so it would
better stand up to an earthquake. Mashal convinced his team to
develop the retrofit with 3-D panels, the technology he learned to
use in Afghanistan to quickly construct buildings for military
The key advantage of 3-D panels is that they are strong but
lightweight, Mashal says. Not only can they stand up to significant
seismic forces, they can resist hurricane force winds as well as
panels consist of an expanded polystyrene core sandwiched
between two cover mesh sheets, which are welded together by
diagonal connectors that go through the polystyrene core. Two
layers of a strong concrete are then applied to both sides of the
The result is a light-weight, three-dimensional truss system
with high inherent stiffness, Mashal explains.
"In the foundation, we put in reinforcing steel 'starter bars',
which are tied to the 3-D panel walls," says Mashal. "If a
hurricane hits, the building will have enough strength to withstand
it, so it won't collapse. If the buildings in New Orleans had had
these panels during Hurricane Katrina, there would have been very
little damage, as 3-D panel walls can easily resist up to 225 mph
The panels also are cost-efficient. According to Mashal's
calculations, using 3-D panels instead of masonry could result in a
30 percent cost savings per square meter.
Because they are prefabricated, the panels provide an extremely
fast method of construction, allowing contractors and the Army
Corps of Engineers to build bases in remote regions of Afghanistan
very quickly, often in weeks, not months, once construction
materials have arrived at the site.
"We used them for many kinds of buildings, from barracks to
weapons-storage stations," says Mashal. "We used them to build a
barrack and it took 10 days."
Construction firms are using them extensively overseas, and they
are already being used to build homes in Austria, China, Vietnam,
Australia, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates. However, the
panels are not well-known in the U.S. and currently most building
codes don't cover them.
So when Mashal and his classmates gave their presentation, UB
professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering Andre
Filiatrault, who also directs MCEER, was fascinated. He urged
Mashal to make the 3-D panels the subject of his thesis.
"I was interested in the 3-D panel system because it could be
used in regions of the U.S. that are subjected to earthquakes and
wind," says Filiatrault. "The introduction of the 3-D panel system
in U.S. practices would represent a remarkable example of
technology transfer from the U.S. military to the civilian
Because of the urgent need to secure Afghanistan's borders from
insurgent attacks, Mashal explains, the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers-Afghanistan Engineer District has been continuously
awarding contracts to the construction sector in Afghanistan to use
the 3-D panel system to build safe, reliable military bases for the
Afghan National Army and Police.
Mashal is now doing his master's thesis on the new structural
system, developing computational models of how the panels will
behave in buildings that range from one story to 10.
"My research will provide a better understanding of this
material, its nonlinear dynamic characteristics and how it will
behave under different, severe earthquake conditions," he says.
So, just as Mashal is learning the new discipline of earthquake
and structural engineering, knowledge that promotes better seismic
and building practices, his work may also be a first step toward
wider adoption of the 3-D panels in construction in the U.S.
At a meeting of selected Fulbright scholars last fall in
Washington D.C., where Bill and Melinda Gates received the J.
William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding, Mashal
said, "I would like to thank the U.S. Department of State for
giving me this opportunity to study in one of the most prestigious
universities in the field of structural and earthquake engineering.
I'm committed to do all that is in my power to promote mutual
understanding between Afghans and Americans while building safe
accommodations for all people."
Founded in 1986, MCEER, headquartered at the University at
Buffalo, is a national center of excellence in advanced technology
applications dedicated to reducing losses from earthquakes and
other hazards, and to improving disaster resilience. One of three
such centers in the nation established by the National Science
Foundation, MCEER has been funded principally over the past two
decades with more than $67 million from NSF, more than $47 million
from the State of New York and more than $34 million from the
Federal Highway Administration. Additional support comes from the
Federal Emergency Management Agency, other state governments,
academic institutions, foreign governments and private
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public
university, a flagship institution in the State University of New
York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's
more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through
more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree
programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of
the Association of American Universities.