Newswise — WASHINGTON, D.C.—Composite materials are not only cost-effective alternatives to traditional building materials but they have the potential to build upon the country’s strength in manufacturing and enhance labor productivity.

In testimony delivered today (April 18) to the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Hota GangaRao, the Maurice and Jo Ann Wadsworth Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at West Virginia University, discussed the importance of investing in advanced materials to continue to lead the world in composite research, development and implementation.  

In his report, GangaRao, who directs the Constructed Facilities Center and the National Science Foundation-funded Center for the Integration of Composites into Infrastructure at WVU, discussed the benefits of using fiber-reinforced polymer composites in structural projects.

“FRP composites have become dominant in select infrastructure applications where light-weight, durability and non-corrosiveness is required, such as wind energy, underground gasoline tanks and cooling towers,” GangaRao said. “Based on previous successful demonstration projects, composites are poised to expand into additional infrastructure applications including reinforcing bars for concrete, bridge decks, utility poles, repair of structures and refurbishment of sewer/stormwater pipes.”

Composites are moving into these areas due to their biggest advantage over traditional materials: durability.

“Composites won’t corrode or rot like conventional materials, resulting in a longer service life,” GangaRao said. “Infrastructure is commonly built with timber, steel or steel reinforced concrete, all of which degrade over time due to natural or man-made conditions.”

While GangaRao noted that the widespread use of conventional materials has led to a wealth of knowledge on their field of behavior, the use of composites is accelerating rapidly.

“It is important to recognize that composites have had numerous successes over the years, and the design and engineering methodologies utilized for composites are based on lessons learned, including the lessons from conventional materials,” GangaRao noted. “FRP composites will never fully replace conventional materials for many infrastructure applications, but they should be viewed as another tool in the toolbox because of their inherent advantages over traditional materials.”

The U.S. produces 31 percent of the world’s carbon fiber, more than any other nation, and is home to two of the top five leaders in glass fiber production. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. composite exports are expected to grow at a rate of 4.2 percent in 2017 and 2018. U.S.-produced composites are typically higher grade products (higher strength, lower defects) reflecting the needs of our construction industry and to meet U.S. standards for safety and structural longevity.

“Providing incentives to extend composites into new infrastructure applications will push innovation,” GangaRao said. “To protect our lead in composites from a safety viewpoint, the U.S. should monitor imports and ensure subpar composite products are not being brought here at below market rates. Standards and codes should reflect the high-quality composites being produced here.”

GangaRao added that composites can be used to renovate existing infrastructure, resulting in investment savings. Testifying in 2017 to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, GangaRao said, “Our focus should be on renovation – not replacement – of infrastructure, to realize the biggest bang for the buck.

“With advances in smart manufacturing, code development and education, composite usage will expand into more infrastructure projects, growing exponentially and resulting in tremendous economic growth.”