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ISIS steps up efforts to promote use of "space-age" polymers and sensors

Canada's global expertise in new construction materials and monitoring equipment won a further vote of confidence from the Network of Centres of Excellence in March with news that the ISIS Canada Research Network would be renewed for another three years.

Established in 1995, ISIS provides civil engineers with smarter ways to build, repair and monitor structures using high-strength, non-corroding, fibre reinforced polymers (FRPs) and fibre optic sensors (FOSs). The Network has brought together 13 universities, 276 researchers, 92 associated organizations to collaborate on 36 multidisciplinary demonstration projects.

On March 28, the NCE announced $9.6 million in renewed funding for the ISIS Canada following an in-depth review of its scientific accomplishments, future research priorities and training and knowledge transfer activities. The funding will take the Network through to the end of its 14-year mandate.

ISIS will spend much of the next three years working with standards associations and civil engineers to promote the use of these technologies in structures throughout Canada and the world.

"Our focus now shifts from the research side to field projects where we can demonstrate how practical and useful this research is to real-world structures," says Dr. Aftab Mufti, President of ISIS and a Professor of civil engineering at the University of Manitoba. "We also want to work with Canadian universities to have our research findings included in the undergraduate curricula of civil engineering programs."

ISIS has won international praise for its expertise in developing FRP and FOS technologies. FRPs offers many advantages over conventional steel reinforcements in bridges, dams, pipelines, buildings and other structures. The material is six-to-ten times stronger than steel and it is non-corrosive, resulting in a structure that lasts longer and requires less maintenance. The technology is currently used in over 50 structures in Canada, including the Confederation Bridge.

Its other breakthrough technology, FOS, is fueling rapid advances in the emerging field of structural health monitoring (SHM). Miniature fibre optic sensors installed in structures during construction can measure – in real-time – the effects of stress, wind, precipitation and even temperature. The research has already led to commercial products, including two readout instruments and a sensor system component. ISIS is now looking at developing a wireless equivalent of the technology.

Influencing design, codes and policy
ISIS design manuals are now used by hundreds of engineers in 34 countries. The Network is also influencing design policy through its association with Public Works and Government Services Canada, engineering consultants and bridge design offices in several city and provincial highway departments across the country. In addition, ISIS research and demonstration projects are resulting in upgrades to the Canadian Highway Bridge Design Code. Internationally, ISIS was instrumental in helping to form the International Society for Health Monitoring of Intelligent Infrastructures and the International Institute for FRP Construction.

"Many Canadians are in key positions in these two societies and are taking a lead to ensure that our research is discussed at the international level. Canada is considered a leader in the use of FRPs, fibre optic sensors and how we monitor these structures. The whole international community, including the United States, views us as experts in the field," says Dr. Mufti.

Priorities for next three years
As ISIS Canada enters its final phase as an NCE, planning is underway to establish a new entity, called Civionics Canada Research Network. ISIS coined the word "civionics" to explain the application of electronics to civil structures.

As a first step, user manuals for civionics have been prepared and a SHM Support Centre has been established in Winnipeg to meet the needs of ISIS researchers. Over time, ISIS hopes to open support centres in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies and British Columbia to provide professional consulting on the installation and use of sensors and other equipment, as well as data management services.

"We are also creating ISIS associates," adds Dr. Mufti. "These would be ISIS researchers and former students who have worked on ISIS projects who could carry on the research work of these technologies, perhaps moving structural health monitoring into new areas such as hazard mitigation."
While proud of his Network's research accomplishments over the past decade, Dr. Mufti says their greatest achievement has been in training a new generation of engineers who are open to using new materials and technologies.

"Civil engineers are very conservative by nature when it comes to embracing new ideas, but here in Canada we're training a new breed of professional who is more open to using space-age materials like fibre reinforced polymers and fibre optic sensors to monitor the health of a structure, right from the design to its maturity and aging. This will be one of the NCE's greatest legacies."

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