Earthquake-Proof Pipelines Tested in the Lab

July 20, 2006

The nightmare: A magnitude 6.7 earthquake rocks the neighborhood. Sidewalks buckle. Brick houses crumble. A water main snaps and floods the street.

And then, boom! A nearby house is engulfed in a ball of flames when its natural gas line ruptures.

Wailing sirens mute barking dogs and shrieking children, but with no water to douse the flames, the fire rages on unchecked.

Thomas O'Rourke, an engineer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, is working to ensure this scenario never becomes reality.

He tests the strength and durability of various pipelines at the university's multimillion-dollar earthquake simulation laboratory.

"We are able to really impose the kinds of loads and deformations that are consistent and comparable with a major earthquake," he said. (Related story: "Supercities" Vulnerable to Killer Quakes, Expert Warns [May 2, 2003].)

The lab, which is part of the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES), aims to engineer pipeline systems that bend and move—not snap and rupture—with the changing geography generated by an earthquake (interactive feature: triggers your own quake).

Clifford Roblee of Davis, California, is the executive director of NEES. He calls pipelines lifelines, because they carry critical resources such as water and natural gas that keep communities running after a major earthquake.

The work at Cornell "is both world class and extremely practical," he said in an email. "Application of Cornell's lifeline research will certainly improve the earthquake resiliency of communities."

Quake Simulation

On July 14 O'Rourke and his colleagues completed the latest in a series of tests on a high-density polyethylene pipe buried under more than 100 tons (91 metric tons) of sand.

"High-density polyethylene can stretch and deform and do it without rupturing," O'Rourke said.

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