Lessons from Afghanistan: Fulbright Scholar at UB, an Afghan Native, Seeks to Popularize Earthquake-Engineering Technology He Learned While Building Army Bases

Release Date: January 26, 2011

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Mustafa Mashal, now a UB graduate student in civil engineering, worked in Afghanistan for a contractor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; here he is shown at a site for military aircraft at Kabul International Airport.

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 Police.

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 his professors.

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 bases.

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 blasts.

The 3-D 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 panel.

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 wind speed."

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 construction sector."

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 industry.

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.

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