This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Fulbright scholar seeks to popularize
earthquake-engineering technology

Master’s student and Fulbright scholar Mustafa Mashal is adapting construction technology learned on the job in Afghanistan for use in earthquake engineering.

Published: January 31, 2011

The area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that recently experienced a magnitude 7.2 earthquake is one that UB 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.

Because of the area’s sparse population and the temblor’s low intensity, the earthquake fortunately caused minimal damage or disruption in Afghanistan, but 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—in particular the 2005 Pakistani earthquake that killed 80,000 people—helped inspire Mashal to study earthquake engineering to find ways to make homes and buildings safer.

He ultimately 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 Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, 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 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 then are applied to both sides of the panel.

The result is a lightweight, 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 already are 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 most building codes don’t cover them.

So when Mashal and his classmates gave their presentation, Andre Filiatrault, professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering 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 now is 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 also may be a first step toward wider adoption of the 3-D panels in construction in the U.S.