Earthquake-Proof Pipelines Tested in the Lab

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For the tests, the researchers lay a 35-foot-long (10.6-meter-long) pipe into two large open-ended boxes and fill the boxes with sand, explains Michael Palmer, a research associate who works in the Cornell lab.

One box is anchored to the wall. The other is moved with a hydraulic system. The movement simulates a strike-slip fault rupturing about 4 feet (1.2 meters).

The simulation is designed to both bend and stretch the pipe by moving at an angle, Palmer says.

Sensors placed on and inside the pipe record exactly how the pipe deforms.

"What we're doing is trying to use these full-scale experiments to be able to develop computer models of pipeline behavior at fault crossings," he said.

If the Cornell researchers can demonstrate the benefits of bendable materials like polyethylene, then perhaps pipeline companies will "adopt them for their own use," O'Rourke said.

The material, he adds, works particularly well for water pipelines and low- to medium-pressure natural gas pipelines. But it's not suited for high-pressure lines, such as those shuttling oil across Alaska, which require steel.

According to Palmer, the sensors the team uses for their tests may have applications in the real world as well.

For example, the sensors could relay information on pipeline integrity after an actual earthquake, letting residents know if a water or gas line is likely to rupture.

"A lot of these sensors we are using haven't been used in this type of application before," he said. "So it's interesting to see how we apply them and the results we get."

Disaster Network

The NEES consortium encompasses 15 laboratories across the U.S. In addition to Cornell's Large Displacement Facility, other research centers test the effects of earthquakes on buildings, bridges, and coastlines.

Data from each facility are shared among the research centers via the Internet.

"With NEES, everyone is supposed to share with everybody," Palmer said. "That's different than the way it had been in the past. In the past, academics held their research close and didn't talk."

Ultimately the researchers hope the knowledge gained from their collaborative effort will seep into building codes and save neighborhoods from going up in flames.

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