AEWC Center: Building bridges to the future for Maine students & companies

Harbor Technologies and LLC Advanced Infrastructure Technologies —two spin off AEWC companies

By Ramona du Houx

April 7th, 2009

When Habib Dagher walked on the stage during a presentation about UMaine’s research and development (R&D) bridge composite technologies at AEWC, he was casually carrying an oversized backpack. To most everyone’s surprise, he pulled out the major component that would be the skeleton of an arch in a composite bridge. It looked like nothing more than a large blue cylinder bag.

So how does a bridge grow out of a bag, magic? From great R&D being done at the AEWC composite center.

Part of a bridge in a backpack behind Dr. Dagher of AEWC
Part of a bridge in a backpack behind Dr. Dagher of AEWC

AEWC’s arches made of composite materials are inflated at the site of a bridge and then infused with resin. Once they harden, they are lowered into place and filled with concrete and the foundations are shored up. Then the arches are covered in a corrugated, composite material, dirt and sand fills in gaps, and a composite deck on top of the structure is paved.

The world’s first “bridge in a backpack” can be seen in Pittsfield as the Neal Bridge. That 44-foot structure used 23 arches in its construction and cut down the time of erecting a bridge — which was built by UMaine students, professors, and the Maine Department of Transportation.

“The benefits of this bridge-building method are threefold. First, the arches are an instant framework. Second, you don’t need any steel reinforcing bars or rebar, because the arches are twice as strong as steel. And third, the tubes protect the concrete from water and elements, extending the life of the concrete,” said AEWC Director Dagher.

This revolutionary bridge-building technology was discovered at AEWC and has patents pending.

AEWC Grad. student Dan Bannon
AEWC Grad. student Dan Bannon
“This technology will change the way we build bridges throughout the country and the world. These bridges will have a longer lifespan and reduce corrosion,” said graduate student Dan Bannon. “It’s an exciting place to study and work, because it changes day to day, and challenges you day to day.”

The Neal Bridge design has been a success in large part because of 24-year-old Bannon. While working towards his master’s degree in civil engineering, Bannon developed modeling techniques for testing the bridge structure in the lab. After graduation he will be working for Advanced Infrastructure Technologies (AIT), as they develop their business using the “bridge in a backpack” in Bangor.

“It’s a very exciting opportunity for me, and I’ll be able to continue design and testing at this center,” said the young inventor.

Bannon feels the bridge project could affect other areas of civil engineering that have yet to discover the benefits of composites.

“This bridge is an exciting project for our industry,” said Bannon. “Composites in civil engineering is a young industry whose time has come. I hope we are braving the way for innovation of this kind of composite technology throughout the industry, starting here in Maine.”

Bannon had a “tremendous experience” in the master’s program, but he didn’t start at UMaine with the idea of becoming an innovator of composites. “To be honest, I originally came to UMaine because of instate lower tuition costs. When I got here and saw the kind of projects that were worked on at the AWEC center, I realized we really have a world-class laboratory in Maine. That gave me the incentive to get my master’s degree here.”

The work being done at AEWC is helping companies build their futures here in Maine.

The other bridge technology, which AEWC is working on for Harbor Technologies, involves horizontal girders made of composite material. Harbor Technologies is a spin-off company from AEWC and is already producing pilings made from composites and bridge girders.

The Maine DOT was impressed by the technology developed at AEWC. They will construct six additional bridges using the bridge-in-a-backpack technology. When tests are completed at AEWC, Maine’s DOT intends to use the girder technology in a 500-foot long bridge in Boothby.

“Our ability to get in and out of a community in a timely fashion saves money and causes less disruption in communities,” said DOT Commissioner Cole. “Lightweight materials with the ability to be constructed on site means we don’t need as much heavy equipment, and this technology is durable and resistant to corrosion, which means the bridges should last longer. This is great for bridge construction.”

Transportation officials in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Missouri, and several other states have already been in contact with the Maine DOT, Dagher’s staff, and Harbor Technologies about the composite bridges.

“I’m so impressed with how all the various stakeholders in this project are working together. I’m blown away by the level of support I see the state give to AEWC and the composite materials industry,” said John Hillman, president of HC Bridge Co. Hillman is the inventor of the bridge girder technology that Harbor Technologies is manufacturing.

Dagher said, “Governor Baldacci has been a true and strong supporter of R&D. His composite bridge initiative is the very reason that we are here today and that these two businesses are growing here in Maine. His vision of using Maine DOT bridge construction to help cerate a new industry in Maine is paying off.”

Habib Dagher show off the centers bridge in a backpack
Habib Dagher show off the centers bridge in a backpack

“This is all about doing things in a smart way, using Yankee ingenuity, the research that goes on up here at the university, and being able to commercialize that throughout our sectors in the state of Maine. Because of the work of the Legislature, we will be committing at least $6 million for bridges made from composites,” said Governor Baldacci. “These construction technologies also have applications beyond bridges, such as wind turbines and offshore wind structures, with the potential of creating more clean-energy jobs in Maine.”

Just three days after President Obama signed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), discussions flowed at the AWEC center about how those funds will help build more bridges from these new methods and help ongoing R&D research.

“When you look at what this center has accomplished, it’s exciting to know they will be receiving funds from the stimulus package,” said Congressman Mike Michaud.

Michaud also sits on the Transportation Committee in Washington, DC. “I’m going to make sure that the Secretary of Transportation knows about these bridge-building technologies that are not only applicable here but worldwide. When you think of our troops overseas building infrastructure, these bridges could be a great help to them.”

The two companies highlighted at the press conference are expected to create jobs in the near future.

“We developed this laboratory to help create the jobs of the future and have spin-off companies set up in the state of Maine. So when students graduate, they will have jobs waiting for them. Today was a great example of how well that is working,” said Dagher.

More about Harbor Technologies, LLC —

Harbor Tech. CEO Martin Grimnes
Harbor Tech. CEO Martin Grimnes
Harbor Technologies, LLC of Brunswick began manufacturing environmentally friendly marine pilings and float systems built from composites four years ago. Traditional pilings have a limited lifetime in the marine environment, due to corrosion, marine worms and borers, electrolysis, and UV degradation. Composites pilings are more durable and last longer.

They’ve built piling systems for the Navy in Pearl Harbor and San Diego, as well as other customers. In 2008 HTL took the opportunity to branch out, and they began manufacturing John Hillman’s composite-girder beam for bridges. In that year, the Hillman-Composite Beam was one of the top ten inventions in the world, according to Popular Science magazine. Hillman’s association with AEWC composite center led to a partnership with HTL.

Last year HTL working with Hillman-Composite Beams constructed the first bridge in the world using this innovative technology in Chicago. Inside the composite beam is a concrete arch made of composite materials that are filled with concrete, on site. The empty composite girder arrives on site weighing only 4,800 lbs compared to conventional concrete girders that weigh over 50,000 lbs. Transportation costs save bridge builders funds, along with the ease of construction.

Currently the AEWC center is testing the life feasibility of the girders. As with the marine pilings, composite materials are less corrosive, and the concrete enveloped inside the beam is shielded. Prolonging bridge life and increasing strength has interested the transportation industry.

Once the test is complete, the Maine Department of Transportation will use the technology. “We’re excited about the possibility of working with HTL on the Knickerbocker Bridge in Boothbay,” said MDOT Commissioner David Cole.

HTL’s CEO Martin Grimnes is a graduate of UMaine and has been working with the composites industry in Maine, fostering its growth for years. As the piling side of his business continues to grow, Grimnes and Hillman will be working together on bridge girder projects. Recovery Act stimulus funds for infrastructure could spread these composite beams across the country.

HTIs composite bridge in Chicago
HTIs composite bridge in Chicago
New Jersey, Illinois, and Maine are considering composite-girder beams. A composite bridge girder beam is currently in production for another bridge in New Jersey, and Grimnes is currently talking with the Missouri DOT.

“We have a DOT job in New York, where we will be adding jobs, ten to fifteen jobs, and another Navy contract which means another ten to fifteen jobs. We’re expecting a tsunami,” said Grimnes, referring to the amount of orders possible from Maine, the nation, and around the world.

Accordingly HTL is gearing up for orders for bridge girders as well as pilings.

They recently hired a new operations manager, Alan Potts, who has a background in high-performance composite plastics. And Eric Newberg, formally from Hinckley Boats, was recently hired as an Engineer.

“The composite industry is booming, particularly in the renewable energy and infrastructure markets,” explained Grimnes. “Our expanding list of projects from across the country and around the world requires us to take the next step to increase manufacturing capacity.”

On March 16th the only pultrusion machine in New England arrived at HTL.

The $500,000 machine will allow HTL to produce pilings to any specified length up 100 feet, and was partially funded by a Development Award through the Maine Technology Institute.

Glass reinforcing fibers travel through a resin bath and then enter a heated die, which dictates the shape.
“A simple explanation of how it works is that it’s like a Play-Doh machine,” said Marketing Manager Erik Grimnes. “The machine will ensure very exact tolerances, including diameter, wall thickness, roundness, and surface condition. The process allows for greater manufacturing capabilities.”

The company tripled its manufacturing space in 2008 to 30,000 square feet and is currently filling multiple orders for pilings ranging from 8 to 24 inches in diameter.

This new pultrusion process allows for continuous production of material. “Once the machine is operational, ideally it will run twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” said Erik Grimnes. “The machine should triple the capacity of production.”

That increased capacity means hiring about 20 more workers, to start, once the machine is commercially operational. First the components will be installed over the next six months, during which time infrastructure will be built around the machine.

“This machine is unique to New England,” said CEO Grimnes. “No other Maine-based manufacturer has this technology to provide efficiency in design, labor, and manufacturing.”

More about Advanced Infrastructure Technologies (AIT) —

AIT will begin be investing approximately $20 million into continuing development and commercialization of the AEWC center’s bridge-in-a-backpack technology.alt

The new company could create about 100 new jobs to start. Maine’s DOT is scheduled to build six more bridges in 2010-2011, using this composite-arch-beam technology that acts as a skeleton for the bridges, as in the Neal Bridge in Pittsfield. The mobility of the technology, where the major components can be kept in a backpack, will be a tremendous selling point. It could be as simple as ordering a bridge by mail and then having local construction workers fill it with concrete and complete its foundations.

“The timing’s very favorable for us to begin the introduction and commercialization of these bridges,” said Bangor native Brit Svoboda, one of the investors in AIT. “We know that the advancement of technology, the ease of assembly, distribution and installation, coupled with an exciting stimulus package with incentives for infrastructure and bridge building, make this the perfect time to roll this company out.”

Svoboda’s commercial real estate development partner Mark Rasmus is also his AIT partner.

“Getting federal government certification of this technology will be the next big challenge. We have interest from a number of states, and we will go there first. The scope of where a bridge like this could be built is global,” said Svoboda.

Students carry a bridge in a backpack
Students carry a bridge in a backpack

Svoboda is a 1976 graduate of UMaine and has three grown daughters living in the Bangor area who all attended UMaine. “I have roots here, a family home in Belfast, and it was time to reconnect with Maine,” said Svoboda. “We need to be in close proximity to the AEWC center as we continue the research and development of several new bridge types beyond the arch.”

Svoboda first approached Dagher for the purpose of starting a wind-power technology company using technologies developed at the center. Once Svoboda and Rasmus saw, “how advanced the bridge in a backpack was and Habib said we need a business to commercialize it, we took the opportunity. Wind may be in the future; the bridges are taking off as we speak,” said Svoboda. “Our biggest dilemma is, do we ship it overnight, ground or UPS. If you want a bridge in Dubai tomorrow we will ship it there, today. We love this technology and being back in Maine.”